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Oromo protests: Why US must stop enabling Ethiopia

Rallies have continued across Ethiopia despite a protest ban announced on Friday
Rallies have continued across Ethiopia despite a protest ban announced on Friday
Awol K. Allo, Special to CNN

Awol K. Allo is LSE Fellow in Human Rights at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights. He writes on the issues behind several months of protests by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos. Around 100 people died following clashes with security forces and demonstrators at the weekend, according to Amnesty International.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

London (CNN)Ethiopia is facing a crisis of unprecedented magnitude, yet its government and Western enablers refuse to acknowledge and recognize the depth of the crisis.

The nationwide protest held on Saturday by the Oromo people, the single largest ethnic group both in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, is clear evidence of a crisis that is threatening to degenerate into a full-scale social explosion.
The protests are the most unprecedented and absolutely extraordinary display of defiance by the Oromo people and it is by far the most significant political developments in the country since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the strongman who ruled the country for over two decades.
The protests took place in more than 200 towns and villages across Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, and were attended by hundreds of thousands of people. According to Oromia media Network, security forces used live bullets against peaceful protestors, killing over 100 protestors.
Oromos have been staging protest rallies across the country since April of 2014 against systematic marginalization and persecution of ethnic Oromos. The immediate trigger of the protest was a development plan that sought to expand the territorial limits of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, into neighbouring Oromo villages and towns.
Dr. Awol Allo
Dr. Awol Allo
Oromos saw the proposed master plan as a blueprint for annexation which would further accelerate the eviction of Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands.
When the protest resumed in November of 2015, the government dismissed the protestors as anti-peace elements and accused them of acting in unison with terrorist groups — a common tactic used by the government to crackdown on dissent and opposition.
The government used overwhelming force to crush the protest, killing hundreds of protestors and arresting thousands. In its recent report titled “Such a Brutal Crack Down”, Human Rights Watch criticized the “excessive and lethal force” used by security forces against “largely peaceful protestors” and puts the number of deaths at over 400.
The figure from the activist group is considerably higher.
Historic Injustices
The Oromo make up well over a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people. Historically, Oromos have been pushed to the margin of the country’s political and social life and rendered unworthy of respect and consideration.
Oromo culture and language have been banned and their identity stigmatized, becoming invisible and unnoticeable within mainstream perspectives.
Ethiopians from Oromo group marching a road after protesters were shot dead by security forces in Wolenkomi, Addis Ababa, December 15, 2015
Ethiopians from Oromo group marching a road after protesters were shot dead by security forces in Wolenkomi, Addis Ababa, December 15, 2015
Oromos saw themselves as parts of no part — those who belong to the country but have no say in it, those who can speak but whose voices are heard as a noise, not a discourse.
When the current government came into power a quarter of a century ago, it pursued a strategy of divide and rule in which the Oromos and Amharas, the two largest ethnic groups in the country, are presented as eternal adversaries.
Oromos are blamed as secessionists to justify the continued monitoring, control, and policing of Oromo intellectuals, politicians, artists and activists.
By depicting Oromo demands for equal representation and autonomy as extremist and exclusionary, it tried to drive a wedge between them and other ethnic groups, particularly the Amharas.
This allowed the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and Tigrayan elites to present themselves as the only political movement in the country that could provide the stability and continuity sought by regional and global powers with vested interest in the region.
Although these protests are triggered by more recent events, they are microcosms [of] a more enduring and deeper crisis of political representation and systematic marginalization suffered by the Oromo people.
In its 2015 comprehensive country report titled “Because I am Oromo”, Amnesty International found evidence of systematic and widespread patterns of indiscriminate and disproportionate attack against the Oromo simply because they are Oromos.
US Influence
The United States see the Ethiopian government as a critical partner on the Global War on Terror.
This led administration officials to go out of their way to create fantasy stories which cast Ethiopia as democratic and its leaders as progressive. In 2012, then US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described Meles Zenawi, the architect of the current system, as “uncommonly wise” and someone “able to see the big picture and the long game, even when others would allow immediate pressures to overwhelm sound judgment.”
In 2015, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman praised Ethiopia as “a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair, credible, open and inclusive.” She further added, “”Every time there is an election, it gets better and better.” That election ended with the ruling party winning 100% of the seats in parliament by wiping out the one opposition in the previous parliament.
In 2016, President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Ethiopia amid widespread opposition by human rights groups. Obama doubled down on previous endorsements by administration officials by describing the government as ‘democratically-elected.”
A police state
However, consistent reports by the US government itself and other human rights organizations depict an image of a police state whose apparatus of surveillance and control permeates the entire society down to household levels.
The US led ‘war on terror’, started by President George Bush, provided the government with a political and legal instrument with which the government justified severe restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
The 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, one of the most draconian pieces of anti-terrorism legislations in the world, enabled the government to stretch its power of prosecution and punishment beyond what is permissible under standard criminal and constitutional law rules.
In recent years, terrorism trials have become the most significant legal instrument frequently used by the authorities to secure and consolidate the prevailing relationship of power between the ruling ethnic Tigrayan elites and other ethnic groups in the country.
Under the pretext of ‘fighting terrorism’, the regime exiled, prosecuted and convicted several opposition leaders, community leaders, journalists, bloggers, and activists; paralyzing criticisms of any type.
In its 2015 report titled Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Law: A Tool to Stifle Dissent, the Oakland Institute details the ways in which Ethiopian authorities systematically appropriate the anti-terrorism law to annihilate dissent and opposition to the policies of the ruling party.

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As of July, the protests have been spreading into the Amhara region, home to the second largest ethnic group in the country.
The Amharas and Oromos, which constitute well over two-third of the country’s population, are seen as ‘historical antagonists’. The ruling party transformed this antagonism between the two ethnic groups into a productive political tool.
According to the governing narrative, Oromos are narrow-minded and exclusionary people who seek to disintegrate Ethiopia into smaller republics while Amharas are chauvinists who seek to restore the old feudal order, leaving the ruling party as the only political force that can rescue Ethiopia from both threats.
These governing narratives are being exposed as the two groups begun to see how these narratives were crafted and are expressing solidarity towards each other as victims of the same system.
The Ethiopian government is in denial and making the same promises of restoring ‘law and order’ through further repression and crackdown.
However, this can only exacerbate the situation and throws the country into chaos in an already volatile region.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author

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1 Comment

  1. Why should the West including the u.s. muddle in Ethiopia after a stark reminder that their interventions have led to disaster after disaster in a number of Middle Eastern and African countries lately? Syria and Libya are examples.

    I don’t think the West including the U.S. came together as block to take position on intervention in Syria and Libya. This is how it all started: spontanious peoples’ uprisings began in the countries and governments attacked the people rather than address the people’s demands. When it became evident that the governments do not want to forgo power, the West including the U.S. gave a hand to the people. With the said support, the governments were toppled.

    The irony of this recent event was there was no plan as to what will happen once the governments were toppled. As a result, the people were caught off guard by a new development: a country without a government, law and order. Only contenders for power and resources. The case in point is Libya.

    Both in Libya nad Syria and other countries which had what was then called the Spring revolution, the overthrow of governments failed to result in democracy, free and fair elections and peace. There is no change of government in Syria. Egypt saw the continuation of military rule similar to the one overthrown. Much worse is Libya which has no government for almost five years now. Except in Tunisia which took a different path due to delebrate process, the outcome of the Spring revolutuin backed by the West is unmitigated human misery.

    Given this lesson the West including the U.S. learned, do you expect them to intervene in Ethiopia? I don’t think so. Not at least a military intervention unless there is a total breakdown of peace, law and order in the country . In that situation, they might deploy from Djibouti and take Addis in a day or two. But we are far from that kind of intervation now.

    If you ask me my personal opinion on the issue, I will say “better if they do not muddle the way they did in some of the Middle East countries”. This is not to say they should sit and look at us as we go on one another’s throat; that they cannot afford because of their interests. Short of military intervention there is a lot they can do. For example, they can tell the government to hear the people and find peaceful means to address demands of the people before the uprising reaches a complete crisis stage. They can also talk to the inflamatory opposition in the diasora and their media outlets to show some kind of responsibility in their activities and reporting.

    The good news is perhaps the West is already working behind the scene.

    Addis Standard published a report under the title “Ethiopia braces for massive protest rally called by online Oromo protest activists.” Though the paper carried nothing new as far as calls for démonstrations is concerned, it had a paragraph suggesting that the government is looking for a peaceful means to resolve the problem.

    The paragraph reads as follows:

    “In a related news, reliable sources told Addis Standard that the government in Ethiopia is planning to call a meeting at the end of this month with opposition party representatives “both inside and outside the county” to be held at the African Union (AU) aimed at discussing the political impasse the country seems to be in. Titled “Peace Building and National Consensus”, the meeting is requested by the government and is expected to be facilitated by the AU, Addis standard learned. However our attempts to get official confirmation were to no avail.”

    There seems to be a contradiction regarding sources to this information. The “reliable sources” are not mentioned and an “official confirmation” is not available. At least, AU could have have said a word or two on such major issue. The uprising which seems to have reached Addis, the seat of AU, foreign governments and many international organizations should be a concern for the AU itself and others. It appears that the government is also losing face as a host of AU, several foreign governments and international organizations. In any case, if the news is not a wishful thing, it is a step in the right direction.

    (Click next to see the entire news: http://addisstandard.com/ethiopia-braces-massive-protest-rally-called-online-oromo-protest-activists/)

    But I wonder if the opposition both in and out of the country are the only and the right entities for the government to sit with and talk “peace and concensus”. Since the uprising is popular, some kind of direct representation of the people themselves in the talks might be necessary.

    Furthermore, the government should go public about its “peace and concensus” plan. It cannot release statments intended to trivialize and undermine the demands of the people. It cannot, likewise go on attacking and arresting the peole forever while it says it wants “peace and concensus” talks. As a good will gesture, it will have to reign on police and army actions. Releasing people arrested is also a good gesture. In the absence of such gesture, the country is headed for collapse.

    On balance, the responsibility to create and nurture a climate of “peace and concensus” in the country falls on the government. If it is serious about it as the news above suggested, the country might be saved.

    I think there are signs that the West and the U.S. are working for a peaceful resolution of the uprising in the country. Ethiopia is a big country with huge population which they cannot afford to lose to terrorists from Somalia or Eritrea.

    Let’s hope for the bast

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