Why Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group is protesting

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Since the Ethiopian government announced plans to expand the territory of the capital Addis Ababa in April 2014, the country’s largest region, Oromia, has been rocked by protests that have claimed hundreds of lives.

Oromia, which completely surrounds the capital of the Horn of Africa country, is home to the Oromo ethnic group. The Oromos are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, but members of the community claim to have suffered systematic discrimination and oppression from the Ethiopian federal government.

Newsweek explains who the Oromo are, why they are protesting and how the Ethiopian government is reacting.

Who are the Oromo?

More than one in three Ethiopians comes from the Oromo ethnic group: the Oromos made up more than 25 million of the 74 million inhabitants at the last census in 2007 (Ethiopia’s population has since risen to almost 100 million). The Oromo have their own language and culture distinct from the Amharic language, which is used as the official dialect of Ethiopia.

According to a 2009 report by the US group Advocates for Human Rights, the Oromo suffered human rights abuses and discrimination under three successive regimes in Ethiopia: the Abyssinian Empire under Haile Selassie, dissolved in 1974; the Marxist Derg military junta which seized power in 1974 and ruled until 1991; and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, established in 1991 and existing until now.

The Oromo language was shunned and not taught in schools for much of the 20th century and Oromo activists were often tortured or disappeared. A 2009 report by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated that 594 extrajudicial executions and 43 disappearances of Oromos were recorded between 2005 and 2008 by a group of Oromo activists. The ethnic group clashed with the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in power since 1991; an Amnesty International report from October 2014 stated that at least 5,000 Oromos had been arrested between 2011 and 2014 on the basis of their opposition to the government.

Why did the Oromos protest against the Addis Ababa master plan?

According to the Ethiopian government, the Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan proposed to expand the capital territory to bring better services and greater economic opportunities to the rural areas surrounding Addis. For the Oromos, however, the plan was an attempt at land grabbing that could lead to the forced eviction of Oromo farmers and the loss of valuable arable land in a country regularly plagued by drought.

Protests began in Oromia immediately after the plan was announced – at least nine students were killed in April and May 2014, according to the government, although eyewitnesses said the total was at least 47. The latest series of protests began in November 2015 and has spread across the vast region of Oromia. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in January that at least 140 protesters had been killed during protests after a brutal crackdown by security forces.

The Ethiopian government announced later in January that it was abandoning Addis expansion plans after the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) – the ruling party in Oromia and a member of the ruling EPRDF coalition – dropped its support for the project. Yet despite this, the crackdown continued: HRW’s latest update on February 22 cited claims by activists that more than 200 protesters had been killed, security forces fired on peaceful protesters and thousands other detained without trial.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, pictured at a UN summit in New York, September 25, 2015, has pledged to crack down on ‘destructive forces’ which the government says are hijacking Oromo protests.
Andrew Kelly/Reuters

How has the government responded to Oromo protests?

The EPRDF has harshly criticized the protesters, saying “destructive forces” – including groups designated as terrorist organizations by the Ethiopian government – are hijacking the protests for their own means. Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister, said in December 2015 that protesters had burned government property and killed security forces, and that “ruthless lawful action” would be taken against those causing unrest.

In a statement sent to Newsweek on February 23, the Ethiopian Embassy in London said the claims made in HRW’s February report were based on “malicious statements, false accusations and unsubstantiated allegations from opposition propaganda material “. The embassy said plans to expand Addis had been scrapped after “extensive public consultation” and an investigation into the killings and destruction of property was ongoing.

Are the Oromos seeking to secede from Ethiopia?

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is one of the designated terrorist organizations accused of participating in Ethiopian government protests. The group was formed in 1973 to campaign for the Oromo’s right to self-determination. The OLF is now based in Washington, DC and any accusation of its involvement in the Oromo protests is a way to “criminalise the protesters”, according to Etana Habte, an Ethiopian author and PhD candidate at SOAS University of London. “I don’t think the OLF has a very significant influence on this protest,” Habte says. “[Claims the OLF is involved] have no relevance or grain of truth in themselves. The Oromo protests are fundamentally peaceful and carry a legitimate issue.”

Habte asserts that what the Oromo seek is self-determination, not secession. Article 39 of Ethiopia’s 1994 constitution grants “every nation, nationality or people of Ethiopia” the “unlimited right to self-determination until secession”. What the Oromo are asking for, says Habte, is more say in how their region is governed. “The Oromo people understand Oromia as their own territory where they have an absolute and constitutional right to self-government,” says Habte. “The Oromo protests ask for nothing more than [what is provided by] the Constitution.”

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