Where do the Oromo People Fit Into the Story?

  • Graphic Sam Jones

Bekele Gerba had been out of jail for a short eight months before the authorities knocked at his door in late December, anxious to suppress a wave of democratic ambition in Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Gerba, a peaceful academic and leader of the opposition party, was originally arrested in 2011 under false charges of terrorism alongside another prominent Oromo politician, Olbana Lelisa, who remains in jail.

They are but two of the many Oromo people who have disappeared or been incarcerated at the hands of the repressive government, be they politicians, journalists, activists or students. In Ethiopia, the “prison speaks Afaan Oromo.”

Ethiopia is a nation divided into nine regions based on a system of ethnic federalism overseen by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. This political structure is born of the partnership between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, which joined forces in 1990 to overthrow a brutal military regime.

Despite promises of equality, regional representation and self-administration the EPRDF has since monopolized the political landscape and maintained an authoritarian grip on the entire nation. Through the past decades, the government has consistently exhibited a pattern of severe censorship, surveillance, repression of dissent, discrimination and a general disregard for democracy.

The Ethiopian people have time and again been subject to violent repression of political dissent.

As Concordia students, we feel it is important to promote awareness of this issue and urge international organizations to mount campaigns pressuring the government to release Ethiopian political prisoners, end the repression of political dissent and grant the Oromo people the respect and self-determination they have historically been denied.

In the 2005 election, the Carter Centre observed 383 complaints regarding polling and counting fraud. The Advocates for Human Rights quoted reports of “gunmen intimidating voters, people being forced to vote for certain parties, ballot boxes being stuffed or disappearing and the number of ballots exceeding those of registered voters.”

The student and civilian protests, which followed were quelled by violent military repression. According to an independent report by an Ethiopian judge, the “massacre” left 763 injured and at least 193 killed by gunshot, beating or strangulation.

A decade later, the 2015 election results have served as decisive proof of the EPRDF’s commitment to authoritarianism. In this round of elections, in which the government forbids foreign Western observers, the EPRDF won every single seat in parliament.

If the people of Ethiopia collectively and consistently face oppression of dissent at the hands of their leaders, where do the Oromo people fit into the story?

The Ethiopian people have time and again been subject to violent repression of political dissent.

The Oromo are only one of over 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, but they account for about 40 per cent of the population and are the majority group. As an indigenous people of the area, they embody a diverse set of cultural customs, occupations and religions, but are tied together by a common language—Afaan Oromo—and a complex system of democratic governance known as the gadaa system. The Oromia region is the largest in the country, and while it includes the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, it is mainly comprised of rural farmland.

Scholars agree that the oppression of the Oromo dates back to the end of the 19th century. In a keynote address to the Oromo Studies Association, Tesema Ta’a, author of The Political Economy of an African Society in Transformation, described the Abyssinnian Emperor Menelik’s use of firearms, provided by the Europeans, in order to colonize the Oromo people. He continued to depict the “complete suppression of their language and culture,” and the sad reality of being “alienated from their land, [and] enslaved.”

Fast-forward to today and little has changed: the government ceaselessly targets Oromo people. Some of these injustices are recounted in a powerful 160-page document entitled “Because I am Oromo,” published by Amnesty International in 2014.

The hefty document only recounts repression between 2011 and 2014, in which Oromos have become victims of arrests and execution over “participation in peaceful protests over job opportunities, forced evictions, the price of fertilizer, students’ rights, the teaching of the Oromo language,” as well as over suspected political affiliations.

However, tensions finally appear to be coming to a head. After over a century of oppression, the Oromo are once again fighting with their lives for the right to self-determination, livelihood, land, and to preserve their culture. In November, Ethiopian students came together to protest the reinstatement of the government’s sinisterly titled Master Plan, which expects to expand the capital city into rural Oromia territory.

The plan, renamed the Master Killer by activists, is another in the long line of government land grabs under the guise of development and foreign investment. It was initially proposed in 2014, but cancelled due to demonstrations.

In early Jan. 2016, the government once again cancelled the plan, but many suspect it will be reinstated when stability returns. This issue is much larger than the Master Plan, and the Oromo people have had enough.

The demonstrations have spread like wildfire among the Oromia region for the past three months and unsurprisingly, the EPRDF has responded to the peaceful opposition with military force.

The violence of the recent months has been considered some of the worst to befall the country since the 2005 election aftermath.

Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 140 protesters have been killed and many more injured, among them students and children.

Accounts from local news sources and activists assert that 2,000 have been injured, 800 have disappeared, and more than 30,000 have been arrested or detained.

Students have circumvented media bans and blackouts by turning to outlets such as Twitter and Instagram, posting updates of protest conditions and appalling photos of lifeless protesters hung in trees or lying in ditches and shallow streams. Reports are coming out of torture, rape and of suspected dissenting students being taken from their dormitories by police.

With high levels of censorship credited to an “Orwellian” surveillance system which The Guardian said was “reminiscent of the Stasi in East Berlin,” the coverage in both the local and international media has been sparse and dwindling.

Despite pressure from the Oromo diaspora, the Canadian government has yet to speak out on the issue.

Expect to see more information about an Oromo solidarity campaign in the coming weeks, and mark your calendars for an event at The Hive Café on Thursday, March 3. Please be in touch with either myself or Julia Sutera Sardo for further information or resources, if you wish to get involved in any way.

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