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Oromo Unrest

The Ethiopian government announced 08 October 2016 a six-month state of emergency in response to intensifying and deadly anti-government protests across the country. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said in a televised address the declaration, which went into effect Saturday, was intended to curb recent attacks on government buildings and businesses. The demonstrations originated in the Oromiya region in late 2015. Protesters initially rallied around demands for land rights and are now calling for increased political, economic and cultural rights.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of people were killed in Ethiopias Oromiya region 02 October 2016 when police fired teargas and warning shots to disperse anti-government protesters at a religious festival. The tear gas caused panic and triggered a stampede that killed at least 50 people. Several thousand people had gathered at Lake Harsadi for the annual Irreecha festival of thanksgiving in the town of Bishoftu, about 40 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. Some people from the crowd chanted "We need freedom" and "We need justice" and waved a rebel group's flag. Ethiopian security forces had killed about 600 Oromo since November 2015 during protests against the government, which is entirely dominated by the rival TIgre ethnic group.

Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups, of which the Oromo, at approximately 35-40 percent of the population, is the largest. The federal system drew boundaries approximately along major ethnic group lines. The Oromo, who constitute about 40 percent of the population, are half Orthodox Christians and half Muslims whose traditional alliance with the Amhara in Shewa included participation in public administration and the military. The Oromiya region was established when the new government came to power in 1991. The federal system was divided along ethnic lines. The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in the country.

A long history of censorship of the Oromo by various ruling elites has made censorship one of the major features of Oromo social and aesthetic processes. Not until the fall of Haile Selassie were the voices of other histories and previously peripheral groups given a chance to participate in the dialogue of Ethiopian statehood.

Starting about the mid-sixteenth century, the Oromo people, migrating from the southwest, gradually forced their way into the kingdom, most often by warfare. The Oromo, who eventually constituted about 40 percent of Ethiopia's population, possessed their own culture, religion, and political institutions. As the largest national group in Ethiopia, the Oromo significantly influenced the course of the country's history by becoming part of the royal family and the nobility and by joining the army or the imperial government. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, religious and regional rivalries gradually weakened the imperial state until it was little more than a collection of independent and competing fiefdoms.

The Oromo, representing about 40 percent of the population, occupy areas in south and central Ethiopia that only became part of modern Ethiopia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The people in these areas largely became tenants on their own land as the empire consolidated its rule. Many Oromo resented the alien rule of Amhara and Tigray from the highland core of the empire. Haile Selassie tried to win Oromo loyalty by developing alliances with key Oromo leaders. Although this strategy enabled the emperor to co-opt many Oromo into the imperial system, it failed to end Oromo resistance. Examples of this opposition to Addis Ababa included the Azebo-Raya revolt of 1928-30; the 1936 Oromo Independence Movement; and the establishment in 1965 of the Mecha-Tulema, an Oromo self-help organization.

From 1964 to 1970, a revolt in Bale presented the most serious challenge to the Ethiopian government. During that time, separate Oromo rebel groups in Bale conducted hit-and-run raids against military garrisons and police stations. Until 1969 the Somali government provided military assistance to these rebels as part of its strategy of reestablishing a "Greater Somalia." In addition, Oromo rebels attempted to coordinate their military activities with the Western Somali Liberation Front. After Mahammad Siad Barre took over the Somali government in 1969, the Oromo rebels lost Somali support and found it impossible to sustain their campaigns in southeastern Ethiopia. In 1970 the rebels agreed to a truce with the Haile Selassie regime.

Oromo Organizations

Part of the difficulty for Oromo nationalists wishing to unite a unified Oromo people is the great number of cultural differences among Oromo speaking peoples. In 1973 Oromo dissidents formed the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an organization dedicated to the "total liberation of the entire Oromo nation from Ethiopian colonialism". The OLF had been fighting for self-determination for more than 40 years. Most political parties remain primarily ethnically based, although the ruling party and one of the largest opposition parties are coalitions of ethnically based parties. The government used the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP). to suppress criticism. Journalists feared covering five groups designated by parliament as terrorist organizations in 2011 (Ginbot 7, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), al-Qaida, and al-Shabaab), citing ambiguity on whether reporting on these groups might be punishable under the law.

The OPDO, or Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization, is an Oromo political organization considered by many Oromo to be a puppet of the Zenawi regime. The Oromo Federalist Congress [OFC] is one of four parties that make up the Medrek opposition coalition. The Oromo People's Congress (OPC) and the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) formed a coalition in 2008 which would allow them to combine resources, increase their strength, and better withstand government pressure in the run-up to the 2010 elections. The decision to join forces came from pressure from their Oromo supporters to unite.

The parties claimed to share a common history and similar vision for the future, and their strategy was to use "quiet resistance" and civil rights awareness-raising activities to gain support. The OPC and OFDM decided to form a coalition, vice a merger, for two reasons. First, they feared that the Ethiopian Government (GoE) would feel threatened by the merger and attempt to intervene and manipulate the party, so they are first testing the waters with a coalition. This assumption was based on the experience of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party around the 2005 elections. When the CUD formed a coalition the GoE let them be, but when they started planning a merger the GoE promptly began to recruit and bribe non-committed individuals within the party essentially to gut the party from the inside. The OPC and OFDM leadership felt it would be wise to move cautiously. Also, because of the political party registration process, a merger would result in both parties permanently losing their names and emblems. If the merger didn't work out, it would be very difficult to return to the status quo ante.

Second, there was not yet a sufficient level of trust between the two Chairmen. OPC Chairman Merera Gudina said that OFDM Chairman Bulcha Demeksa has drifted away from the consensus of the opposition on a few occasions (i.e. Bulcha sided with the EPRDF in the debate over whether the nomination list for the National Election Board should be limited) and is "not always predictable." Though mutual respect does exist between the two, caution is being taken to avoid mistakes. The OPC's membership in the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) coalition would not be affected by the formation of the OPC/OFDM coalition.

Government Harrassment

The GoE's harassment, arrests, and crack-down on Oromos and Oromo political parties, sent a clear message that the GoE was not sincerely committed to meeting the OLF even part way in breaching the GoE-OLF divide. Just as the GoE's unrelenting assault on the domestic Oromo community impeded reconciliation, so to did the OLF's unwillingness to accept, even in principle, the Ethiopian constitution as a basic precondition to talks. With the 2008 crackdown on Oromos and the opposition, the GoE was moving further away from achieving an active, multi-party democracy. As long as the majority Oromo ethnic group continued to be shut out of the core leadership and opposition parties were prevented from sharing the political space, stability in this country would remain fragile.

Amnesty International reported October 28, 2014 that at least 5,000 Oromo had been arrested and detained since 2011, many for weeks or months without being charged. The report said they are usually accused of supporting or being members in the outlawed armed group, the Oromo Liberation Front. The report claimed this is just a pretext for silencing dissent. Amnesty said Oromo are subject to arbitrary arrest, detentions without access to lawyers, repeated torture and even targeted killings to crush dissident.

According to NGO reports in 2015, thousands of ethnic Oromos, whom the government accused of terrorism, were arbitrarily arrested and in some cases reportedly tortured. Reports indicated a pattern of surveillance and arbitrary arrests of Oromo University students based on suspicion of their holding dissenting opinions or participation in peaceful demonstrations. According to reports there was an intense buildup of security forces (uniformed and plainclothes) embedded on university campuses in the period preceding the 24 May 2015 national elections.

There were reports authorities terminated the employment of teachers and other government workers if they belonged to opposition political parties. According to Oromo opposition groups, the Oromia regional government continued to threaten to dismiss opposition party members, particularly teachers, from their jobs. Government officials alleged many members of legitimate Oromo opposition parties were secretly OLF members, and more broadly, that members of many opposition parties had ties to Ginbot 7.

In January 2015 eight police officers and three civilians were killed when a group from the Hamer district in the South Omo Zone of the SNNPR confronted police regarding local marginalization, hunting restrictions, and limited land availability due to government-sponsored sugar plantations. The mob killed eight police officers, including the police chief, and three individuals who may have been assisting the police officers.

Protests against the "Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development Plan" erupted in April 2014, resulting in mass arrests and several dozen deaths during clashes with security forces. Oromo students protested in April and May against the capital citys restructuring plan - which they said would dilute Oromo culture through annexing traditional Oromo land surrounding Addis Ababa. The rare protests led to violence. Several dozen people were killed and hundreds arrested. Peaceful Oromo Muslim protests in 2012 and 2013 were also crushed with force and mass arrests.

The Addis Ababa master plan is a blueprint to expand the capital into the Oromiya region. Students from the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia began protesting in late November 2015 against the urban expansion plan around the capital that they feared would lead to land grabs without proper compensation. The protesters demonstrated against the plans by the government to develop farmland outside the capital, Addis Ababa, into a new business zone. The protesters believe that the expansion would lead to a loss of the Oromo culture and language.

The Ethiopian government said that the situation in Oromia is largely under control following the governments retraction on January 12 of the proposed Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan. The controversial proposal to expand the municipal boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, into farmland in Oromia sparked the initial demonstrations. The plans cancellation did not halt the protests however, and the crackdown continued throughout Oromia.

On December 16, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that the government will take merciless legitimate action against any force bent on destabilizing the area. The same day, the government communication affairs office minister, Getachew Reda, said that an organized and armed terrorist force aiming to create havoc and chaos has begun murdering model farmers, public leaders and other ethnic groups residing in the region. Since that time, federal security forces, including the army and the federal police, have led the law enforcement response in Oromia.

Human Rights Watch said 08 January 2016 that Ethiopian sources killed at least 140 people and wounded many more in what the group says "may be the biggest crisis to hit Ethiopia since the 2005 election violence." The rights group's new estimate was nearly twice the death toll it estimated in December 2015 as killed by security forces during anti-government protests, far beyond what the government has confirmed. The government had only confirmed five deaths since the protests began in November 2015. The deaths are attributed to clashes with security forces. Opposition groups say the protesters are mostly students and farmers of the Oromo ethnic group, while the government describes them as "extremist Oromo groups" and "armed gangs."

John Kirby, US Department of State Spokesperson, Bureau of Public Affairs, stated January 14, 2016 "The United States is increasingly concerned by the continued stifling of independent voices in Ethiopia, including the detention of Oromo political party leaders. These arrests have a chilling effect on much needed public consultations to resolve legitimate political grievances in Oromia. We support the Government of Ethiopias December commitment to public consultation with affected communities. For these consultations to be meaningful, all interested parties must be able to express their views freely. We reaffirm our call on the Ethiopian Government to refrain from silencing dissent and to protect the constitutionally enshrined rights of all citizens, including the right to gather peacefully, to write, and to speak freely as voices of a diverse nation. We call for the release of those imprisoned for exercising their rights, such as political party leaders and journalists."

As of February 2016 Human Rights Watch had not been able to verify the total numbers of people killed and arrested given restrictions on access and independent reporting in Ethiopia. Activists alleged that more than 200 people have been killed since 12 November 2015, based largely on material collated from social media videos, photos, and web posts. Available information suggests that several thousand people have been arrested, many of whose whereabouts are unknown, which would be a forcible disappearance. Many protesters allege that the governments violent response and the rising death toll changed the focus of the protests to the killing and arrest of protesters and decades of historic Oromo grievances came to the forefront.



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