Oromo and Amhara protest movement shakes Ethiopia

Since last November, violent protests have shaken Ethiopia. The unrest began in the Oromia mid-western region in opposition to the Surrounding Special Zone Oromia Integrated Development Plan (AASOSZIDP), the special approach of integrated development proposed by the government and popularly known by its misnomer Master Plan.

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration over what they say is unfair distribution of wealth in the country at Meskel Square in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration over what they say is unfair distribution of wealth in the country at Meskel Square in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

 

The project provided for the urbanization of the capital Addis Ababa through the expropriation of Oromo’s agricultural land. The Oromo straight away branded the initiative as a land grab, a practice in use for over ten years in the country, which sees local farmers lose their land in favour of large foreign companies.

Even though last January the government had decided to withdraw the plan, the protests, which initially broke out in an attempt to block a government project for the expropriation of school land earmarked for real estate expansion, continued to demand greater political, economic and cultural recognition of the Oromo community, the largest in the country, which accounts for 34% of the population.

The anti-government demonstrations, during the summer, have spread to the Amhara region, inhabited by the second ethnic group in the country, accounting for 29% of the population. The Amhara denounced the annexation of three districts to the Tigray region and the dominance exercised in business and in economic and political life by people linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray, the party of the ruling coalition.

The Bishoftu massacre

Dissent so far has been brutally repressed by the killing of hundreds of opponents throughout the country and the detention of tens of thousands. In early October, the disproportionate use of force by the army culminated in a massacre carried out in Bishoftu town on Lake Harsadi, about forty kilometres south-east of the capital Addis Ababa, where the Irreecha ceremony, which closes the rainy season, was taking place.

The religious gathering attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. During the celebrations, the members of the Oromo community protested peacefully, showing their hostility to the government by crossing their arms over their heads to form a cross, a symbolic gesture of protest made famous by the Ethiopian Oromo marathoner Feyisa Lilesa, silver medal winner at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The ceremony degenerated when some Oromo leaders, who belonged to the government, sided with the crowd, and the protesters began to throw stones and bottles, triggering a reaction from the security forces.

The crowd began to swell, and many spectators were pushed against the stage where the ceremony was taking place. The government said that the victims had fallen as a result of panic, and also that they did not bear the signs of gunshot wounds.

Witnesses, however, reported that the army used armoured vehicles to block all escape routes and started shooting at people with rubber bullets. At this point, the police fired tear gas and many ended up on the ground, dying of suffocation, while others fell into the ditches surrounding the area and were smothered by those who fell after them.

According to the chair of the Oromo Federalist Congress, Merera Gudina, quoted byAfricanews, the confirmed dead were at least fifty people while Jawar Mohammed, the Executive Director of the Oromia Media Network based in the United States, in a tweet reported about 300 dead.

Freedom of information repressed

In addition to suppressing any manifestation of dissent, the Ethiopian authorities are repressing freedom of information. The latest arrest dates to October 1, when university professor and blogger Seyoum Teshome finished up in handcuffs.

According to Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, “the reason for the detention of Teshome would be the fact that in recent week he had been repeatedly questioned by several international publications because of the riots taking place in Ethiopia. The Oromo intellectual has been imprisoned for his testimony and therefore should be released immediately and unconditionally.”

In recent weeks, some African institutions have broken rank and expressed concern to denounce the brutal repression of the Ethiopian regime, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Union. Even the United States, a key ally of Ethiopia, has been stronger than usual in condemning the use of lethal force.

Last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, expressed the need for an international inquiry, while the request for an investigation was reiterated in recent days by the European Union at the UN Council for human rights in Geneva.

The government declares state of emergency

In this scenario, last Sunday, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced a state of emergency for a period of six months. The measure, declared for the first time in 25 years, has been introduced to stem the large wave of protests that for months has been going through the African country.

However, it is not with the state of emergency that the government will manage to suffocate the public events. To contain Amhara and Oromo resentment it would be more profitable to provide room for dialogue and to introduce reforms, such as the one announced last Tuesday by Desalegn, which provides for the amendment of the electoral system to ensure better representation of the opposition.

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