News

How The Oromo Protests Are Exposing Ethiopia’s Longstanding Political Vulnerabilities

The ongoing Oromo protests have brought Ethiopia’s longstanding political cleavages to the fore.

Oromo Students Solidarity Protest in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of creative commons @ctj71081.


At least 40 people have been killed, hundreds wounded, and thousands detained in more than three weeks of uprisings in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, the largest of nine linguistic-based states. The Oromo people make up close to 50 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million.

Protesters primarily oppose a draft master plan that, if implemented, will expand the jurisdiction of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia. Dozens were killed last year in similar protests when authorities first introduced the controversial Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Development Plan or the Master Plan.

The ongoing protests began last month in Ginci, a small town about 50 miles west of Addis Ababa. There, the demands were limited and benign largely centering on the ownership transfer of a local stadium and the clearing of nearby forest for development by foreign investors. The master plan formed only one piece of their demands. As usual, the authorities responded using disproportionate force—triggering a widespread outrage.

Following the protests, all public schools in Oromia have been closed. Roadblocks have brought traffic in and out of many towns to a standstill. The central government had assumed emergency powers, setting up a command post and instituting curfews in several towns. Where the security situation has deteriorated, notably in parts of Central Oromia, locals have resorted to self-defense. Beyond contentions over the master plan, the ongoing protests, whose scope and scale parallel the revolution of 1974 that toppled Africa’s longest-serving monarch, the late emperor Haile Selassie, have brought to the fore Ethiopia’s longstanding political cleavages.

Despite their numerical majority, the Oromo have long complained about dispossession and continued marginalization. Oromo dissent is often equated with terrorism or treason. There is no level playing field for a viable opposition to emerge, let alone thrive. Almost all Oromo cultural and civil society organizations are banned. Courts are not independent. Young people, Oromos, and others, increasingly feel left out of key decisions that affect their future and lack avenues to air their grievances. Youth unemployment is acute. Employment in the public sector, the leading employer in the country after agriculture, requires party membership or deep connection to the ruling elite. Fleeing to Europe is proving treacherous.

The uprising spread quickly, reaching all corners of Oromia, more than 130 towns, according to some reports, in a matter of weeks. State media-monopoly, power blackouts and disruption of Internet communication have not prevented gruesome images of protesters wounded, or killed by security forces from being posted on social media—fueling the revolutionary fervor.

In many places, parents and the townsfolk have joined students. The local militia and police in some districts have, in a sign of further escalation, broken ranks with the government and defended protesters against a brutal onslaught by federal riot police and the army. Heavily armed security forces can be seen firing tear gas and live bullets at crowds and patrolling streets in military convoys. Oromo opposition and eyewitness accounts, including video and images shared on social media, show the bullet-ridden, gashed and bloodied bodies of unarmed protesters. Protesters have stretched the security forces thin by employing elaborate nonviolent resistance tactics, including sit-ins, food boycotts, walkouts from classes and gestures similar to the ‘hands-up-don't-shoot’ used by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

One thing is certain: these protests are about much more than opposition to the Addis Ababa master plan. The evolving nature of the protesters’ demands points to deep-seated discontents and long unaddressed political grievances. Toward that end , the protesters’ are now calling for genuine self-rule and an end to the domination by the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the kingmakers in Ethiopia’s ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power since 1991. This is evident in their slogans: “Oromia is not for sale,” “Killing is not an answer to our grievances” and “We want genuine self-rule.”

Damage control

In apparent damage containment, the government has paraded several officials before television cameras. However, rather than calming the rising upheaval, their statements are sowing more confusion.

On Friday, the regional president, Muktar Kadir, indicated that the controversial master plan, which triggered the protests is only a blueprint and that it could be scraped. The federal house speaker, Abba Dula Gamada, going even further, suggested that the plan had already been put on hold as his government was busy with last May’s parliamentary elections and more recently responding to an ongoing drought and famine.

Overall, the government's efforts at de-escalation have been haphazard at best and counterproductive at worst. For example, while Kadir and Gamada noted that the master plan would not be implemented without public consultation or if the public rejects it, the regional police commissioner told journalists that the protesters are misled about the master plan’s true intent and called on the public to support it.

Furthermore, the state-run media and supporters of the government are busy drumming up public support for the plan in a true Stalinist fashion. In contravention of assurances by Kadir and Gamada’s that the master plan will be reconsidered, the state-run Oromiyaa TV (OTV) has been doing wall-to-wall coverage of long-promised public discussions on the plan.

However, OTV’s coverage of town hall meetings across Oromia is more of a scripted theater than an open forum where opposing viewpoints are entertained. In towns after towns, government agents planted among participants praise the government's record on development and the expansion of schools, and then launch into almost verbatim denunciations of “diaspora-based anti-peace elements” who are accused of using social media to provoke uninformed young students to advance their political goals.

On the contrary, the public is joining the students by erecting barricades and blocking roads to prevent security forces from gunning down unarmed protesters rather than heeding the government's call. The EPRDF regime faces a trust deficit. The government’s vigorous counter effort to frame the protests as violent is not working, either.

Protesters emphasize the grassroots-based, peaceful and constitutional nature of their demands. However, the government in Addis Ababa has accused them of being tools of “anti-peace elements,” including the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ginbot 7. EPRDF often deflects genuine local grievances by blaming opposition groups and its archenemy Eritrea.

“The protesters are members and sympathizers of violent opposition groups who are determined to overthrow the constitutional order in Ethiopia by force,” Abiy Berhane, Minister Counselor at the Embassy of Ethiopia in London, told IBTimes last week.

Berhane blamed the opposition for engaging in “a malicious campaign to tarnish the image of Ethiopia.”

Ironically, Berhane’s comments undermine the government's previous claims of a popular mandate. In May, the EPRDF claimed 100 percent parliamentary seats in the Horn of Africa country’s 5th national elections. In its quarter of a century rule, the EPRDF had boasted of solid and unflinching support among rural and agrarian communities. Berhane’s suggestion that the protesters are “members and sympathizers of violent opposition groups” is a subtle admission that the regime’s claim of monopoly on popular support is at best exaggerated. The depth and breadth and tenacity of the protests show that people are simply fed up with the ruling party's ceaseless propaganda about development, massive corruption and an ever-growing repression.

Supporters of the government contend that the protests resulted from the lack of clarity and transparency over the master plan rather than a deep-seated popular anger. They have accused and threatened the state leaders for dragging their feet and for not sufficiently explaining the benefits of the master plan to the public. True, a year after protests broke out against it and dozens were killed, key details of the master plan are shrouded in mystery. Leaked documents show that it would expand the capital city's boundary by 20 times its current size, reinforcing the protesters belief that the plan would lead to the eviction of poor farmers, as well as the loss of Oromo culture and identity. But the contentious questions around the status of Addis Ababa are not new. Ethiopia’s constitution stipulates that Oromia’s "special interests" over the city, which doubles as a regional capital, will be respected. However, two decades after its adoption, the EPRDF government has failed to pass a law to implement the special interest clause.

The attack on the Oromo elements in the EPRDF coalition show an increasing sign of internal dissension within the party, especially after the death in 2012 of its mercurial leader, Meles Zenawi. Despite these signs however, the ruling party’s tight hold on the security forces remains unchallenged. The military's top brass is predominantly Tigrean; as is the top leadership of the national security directorates. After riding the barrel of the gun to assume power, Ethiopia’s freedom-fighters-turned-autocrats have not been shy using deadly force to keep it.

It is difficult to predict how the current protests will end. Despite the stiff opposition and loss of lives, the regime could still declare "victory" against what it calls "anti-peace elements." As happening already, thousands of student activists will be hunted down and herded into detention centers. The bodies of the dead will be collected from the morgues and buried unceremoniously. The wounded will continue to live in limbo or die silently. And the public nurses its wounds once more and bids for another time.

However, things may not unfold as usual. The more these protests continue in spite of, and perhaps because of, the massive loss of lives, Ethiopia’s vulnerability will become increasingly apparent. These annual rituals of protests and their violent suppression through brute force has depleted state legitimacy and bodes ill for the country’s and the regime’s future. In fact, it is only a matter of time until these popular dissents metastasize into the straw that broke EPRDF's internal cohesion. The ruling elite may, however narrowly, cling to power. Their hold will not be tenable. As long as the authorities deny any outlets for dissent, Ethiopia will be for long haunted by the specter of more instability.

Hassen Hussein, a writer, teaches Management and Leadership at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

Mohammed Ademo is a New York-based journalist and founder and editor of OPride.com, a website about Oromo and Ethiopia.

News
Still from YouTube

Watch the Retro Music Video for Dyo's 'Go All the Way' Featuring Mr Eazi

The video, directed by Mahaneela, is a tribute to the vintage photography of Malick Sidibé, James Barnor, Seydou Keïta, and Samuel Fosso.

Mr Eazi teams up with budding Nigerian artist Dyo, for her latest single "Go All the Way."

The duo share a memorable music video, inspired by the work of vintage African studio photographers like Malick Sidibé, James Barnor, Seydou Keïta, and Samuel Fosso. The music video features cameos from several young African creatives including Congolese artist Miles from Kinshasa, who are all photographed in stylish clothes before staged backdrops.

The video was directed by multi-hyphenated creator Mahaneela, who also appears in the video,

The Mirza-produced song sees both artists singing suggestively about their lovers. "Go go, go all the way," Dyo sings smoothly on the track's chorus.

Still from YouTube

Keep reading... Show less
Events

Join Us For an Everyday Afrique Party This Labor Day In NYC!

Featuring music by DJ Moma, DJ Tunez, Rich Knight, Boston Chery and DJ Buka.

Everyday People, OkayAfrica and Electrafrique are back with the best Labor Day weekend party around with Everyday Afrique.

Come hang with us for another installment of the party that brings out the New York City's finest.

This September 2 we're taking Everyday Afrique back to The Well in Brooklyn, where you can dance and drink the day & night away across the venue's outdoor and indoor spaces.

Grab Your Tickets to Everyday Afrique's Labor Day Party Here

Music will be handled by a top-shelf line-up of selectors including DJ Moma, DJ Tunez, Rich Knight, Boston Chery and DJ Buka.

The party will be hosted by Young Prince, Saada, Roble, Sinat, Giselle, Shernita and Maine.

Make sure to grab your tickets here and we'll see you on the dance floor!

Keep reading... Show less
Interview
Courtesy of Sibu Mpanza.

INFLUENCED: Meet Sibu Mpanza—the YouTuber Who's Making a Killing from Just Having Fun

'I am the person I needed when and even before I started my YouTube channel,' the prolific YouTuber says.

OkayAfrica brings you the 2019 INFLUENCED Series. In the coming weeks, we'll be exploring the online communities being fostered by young South Africans who are doing more than just influencing. From make-up gurus and hair naturalistas to socially-conscious thought leaders, get ready to be influenced. Read the rest of the series here.

Years ago, Sibu Mpanza found himself experiencing two realities Black South African students are still battling with even today: crippling financial woes at university and debilitating depression.

An aspiring musician who ended up studying psychology instead at the University of Cape Town, Mpanza began skipping as many classes as he possibly could. He would spend copious amounts of time at a computer hidden away in the corner, passing the hours watching funny videos on YouTube. In fact, he says he spent so much time on YouTube that he was literally one of the very first people to view Beyoncé's epic "711" music video—something Mpanza recalls in stitches.

He was searching for something, although admittedly, he didn't quite know back then what it was exactly. It eventually got so bad that in his second year of university, he packed up his things, dropped out and moved to Johannesburg to see if he could become what he'd always imagined he could eventually be.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the name Sibu Mpanza is not only an undeniable success story but an entire brand.

Mpanza is a full-time YouTuber who has been able to capitalise on creating hilarious content about his life and pretty much anything that interests him. While he initially "blew up" because of a YouTube video he put out, a video which called out White students at the University of the Free State who were recorded beating up protesting Black students at a rugby game, he's since moved onto a second channel, More Mpanza, where he makes content that's a lot more fun, apolitical and doesn't take a toll on his mental health. As if two successful channels weren't enough, he's also got a third channel, Arcade, where he and his business partner talk about things they enjoy in the technology space.

For anyone looking to just let off some steam, watch a YouTuber who's willing to poke fun at himself or find some really quality content in an era where everyone seems to have a YouTube channel about something or the other, Mpanza is definitely your guy.

We caught up with him to talk about what inspired his various YouTube channels, the fame that comes with being a household name and what's really important to the young South African creative.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Keep reading... Show less
Audio
Sho Madjozi "John Cena"

The 19 Songs You Need to Hear This Week

Featuring Sho Madjozi, Odunsi, Sarkodie, Mr Eazi, Fuse ODG, Santi and more.

Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our Best Music of the Week column.

Here's our round up of the best tracks and music videos that came across our desks, which you can also check out in our Songs You Need to Hear This Week playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Follow our SONGS YOU NEED TO HEAR THIS WEEK playlist on Spotify here and Apple Music here.

Check out all of OkayAfrica's new playlists on Spotify and Apple Music.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.