William Davison,18 December
The protesters wrapped the two bodies in blankets and plastic sheeting. On top, they placed pieces of paper with the names of the dead, alongside the bullet casings from the weapons that had just killed them. Then the chanting began: “There is no democracy, there is no justice.”This was the scene in Wolenkomi, a town in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, on Tuesday, shortly after security forces fired into a crowd protesting at plans to develop farmland surrounding the capital, Addis Ababa. At least four people were killed.
The defiance of protesters from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, was recorded by one of the activists, who filmed the scenes with his mobile phone. “Stop the killing!” they shouted.
These deaths are the latest resulting from a wave of protests throughout Oromia over the government’s urban planning strategy, which envisages linking up Addis Ababa with surrounding Oromo towns through an integrated development approach.
Oromia region stretches across Ethiopia and is home to a third of the country’s 95 million people. It has its own language, Afaan Oromo, which is distinct from the official Amharic language.
While multiple witnesses said the Wolenkomi protesters were peaceful before the security forces began shooting, four days earlier a mob ransacked the town administration’s compound and burned the police station.
The government said this week that the recent protests had left at least five people dead, but opposition figures have suggested that more than 50 people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters, many of whom tend to be students.
The government denies the protesters’ allegations that the urban expansion amounts to a land grab. The communications minister, Getachew Reda, says the plans are intended to ensure that the interests of Oromo are taken into consideration as Addis Ababa grows.
He insists the scheme is about rational development – ensuring that, for example, Addis Ababa road planners know where Oromia state plans to build hospitals – and says there is no possibility that parts of Oromia will be absorbed by the Addis Ababa administration.
Ethiopia is often hailed as a modern development success story. The government has generally maintained order, and has driven growth with an ambitious infrastructure programme. However, its record on freedom of expression and other rights is often criticised by activists.
he demonstrations in Oromia expose tensions between a decentralised system of ethnic federalism and the top-down development approach of an effectively one-party state, which gives people little say in investment decisions.
On the periphery of booming Addis Ababa, the contradiction is acute. As industrial zones, apartments and factories spring up as part of the government’s urban expansion plans, more Oromo farmers will lose their land, say activists.
Sixty-year-old Oromo Desa Geleta is adamant she will not leave the farm where she has always lived in Burayu, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. As she plucks stray fava beans from the grass, she says that local officials called a meeting three weeks ago to tell residents a housing development would soon be built in the area.
“During the Derg time we died for this land, so we are not going to give it up to anybody,” she said, referring to the military regime, which was overthrown in 1987.
The Derg junta cracked down on the Oromo and other groups in Ethiopia. But the current government has also been accused of abuses – last year, Amnesty International said the authorities had “ruthlessly targeted” and tortured members of the Oromo because of their perceived opposition to the government.
Commenting on the recent protests, the government has described the demonstrators as terrorists and accused them of planning to destabilise the country. Amnesty said this rhetoric would escalate the crackdown against the protesters.
“The suggestion that these Oromo – protesting against a real threat to their livelihoods – are aligned to terrorists will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression for rights activists,” said Lynne Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s regional director for east Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“Instead of condemning the unlawful killings by the security forces, which have seen the deaths of more than 40 people in the last three weeks, this statement in effect authorises excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.”
In an internet cafe in Burayu, Falmata Sena says the planned Addis expansion will be very negative for the Oromo living nearby. “Most of them are farmers, and when you change from agrarian to urbanised, it has its own impact. It will completely diminish the opportunity for Oromo youth. And after the plan is implemented, the language of the area will change from Afaan Oromo to Amharic.”
Falmata would like to see a local development plan that considers the needs and rights of Oromo farmers.
For now, there are few signs that either side is willing to back down. Across Oromia, reports of protests and unrest are still emerging despite the killings. In Ambo, about 50 miles from Wolenkomi, witnesses said two people were shot dead at a demonstration last Saturday.
As darkness fell in Wolenkomi after the killings on Tuesday, the Oromo protesters, who had been jogging round town and chanting defiant slogans, finally began to slip home.
In the quiet of the evening, a group of government workers detailed a litany of grievances against a centralised system they see as overbearing, corrupt and undemocratic.
One guard said he has worked every day since September for an after-tax salary of £19 a month. His office rarely gets the materials it needs as officials pocket the money. Cattle traders tell of a new regulation that requires them to be licensed and pay a fee each time they enter the market. Farmers are angry about a demand for £16 to pay for uniforms for the local defence forces. Corrupt land administration is a recurring theme.
“If a rich person comes and builds a big house, how does it benefit us?” the guard wonders.
Demonstrations by Oromo residents against a blueprint for the expansion of Addis Ababa have rocked at least 30 towns and prompted more than 500 arrests since Nov. 19, says the Oromo Federalist Congress, an opposition group. The unrest — rare in the Horn of Africa nation — highlights the conflict between Ethiopia’s authoritarian development model and its system of federalism, which guarantees the rights of more than 80 ethnicities.
It’s also the biggest challenge the ruling coalition has faced since it came to power after unseating a military regime 25 years ago, according to Milkessa Midega, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Federal Studies at Addis Ababa University.
“The party looks to have neither developed the society — we are begging food aid now — nor democratized the state-society relationships in Ethiopia,” he said. “The Oromo protest movement burns out of the general socio-economic and political marginalization and exclusionary features of the current regime.”
Ethiopia will have sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing economy this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The government says a rate of 10 percent is achievable even as drought in the eastern half of the country leaves about 10 million people needing food aid next year. The state-planned economy may open up more to foreign investors following its sale of $1 billion of Eurobonds last year.
Such growth is already visible in parts of the capital, where shopping malls and luxury hotels are sprouting up. The government has a 25-year plan that seeks to build housing, industry, parks and retail zones and complementary infrastructure. Despite Ethiopia’s decentralized system, power is concentrated in the multi-ethnic Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which, along with allied parties, won every seat in federal and regional legislatures in May.
Communications Minister Getachew Reda said the plan is about rational development, not ethnic politics, and will ensure Addis Ababa develops harmoniously with surrounding Oromo towns so everyone benefits. He said five people have died in the protests.
“If there is still a need for further discussion with communities that is the path the government will definitely take,” Getachew said. “It will do everything to explain why the master-plan is not an attempt to expand the territory of Addis Ababa.”
Planners estimate the population of Addis Ababa and five Oromo satellite towns will more than double to 8.1 million by 2040 and require developing an area 20 times the current boundaries of the capital. Addis Ababa was an Oromo village before it was conquered by Emperor Menelik II in 1886, who then imposed the Amharic language, Milkessa said in an e-mailed response to questions. Ever since, the city has expanded to displace Oromo farmers, he said.
“The Oromo feel that they are completely denied their various rights in the city,” he said. “It is on top of this age-old linguistic and cultural discrimination and political and economic marginalization of the Oromo in the city that the master-plan appeared.”
The Oromo people, one of the continent’s largest ethnic groups, comprise about a third of Ethiopia’s 99.5 million population, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Bekele Gerba, deputy leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, is among those fighting the expansion.
“What does development mean when it’s evicting hundreds of farmers that do not have any skills, that do not have any means of subsistence other than their land?” he said by phone. “They are evicted and they are made homeless and there is no effort to develop and to take into consideration all their cultural, their social and the environmental well-being of the indigenous people that used to live there.”
Four people died when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Wolenkomi in west Oromia on Tuesday,according to witnesses. A group burned down the local administration office and the police station on Dec. 11, and there is no government presence in the town, which is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the capital. By mid-Wednesday, protesters had blocked the road with trucks and the military patrolled, shooting every few seconds.
The most significant human-rights abuses in Ethiopia include restrictions on freedom of association, including through arrests, politically motivated trials, and harassment and intimidation, according to the U.S. State Department.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s largest city and commercial hub, is surrounded by Oromia region and is also the regional capital. The constitution declares the “special interest” of Oromia in the capital should be respected, although this hasn’t been defined by law.
Falmata Sena, 34, an Oromo resident of the town of Burayu, which comes under the master-plan, says the government’s development plan means the Oromo losing autonomy, language and culture as investors move into their neighborhoods, repeating a process that’s occurred in Addis Ababa.
“The upper layer is development, but the hidden agenda is how to assimilate Oromos,” he said.
The shooting on Tuesday, in the central Oromia region, adds to tensions following more than three weeks of demonstrations by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, against a plan to integrate Addis Ababa with surrounding towns in Oromia Regional State. They argue it will cause Oromo farmers to lose their land and erode the group’s cultural and linguistic identity.
About 50 people have been killed since Nov. 19 across Oromia, including as many as 13 on Tuesday, said Bekele Nega, the general-secretary of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress. The government has put the death toll at five and accused the movement of becoming increasingly violent.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, has a state-led development model guided by a ruling coalition that has all 547 seats in the federal parliament.
Protesters set up roadblocks on Tuesday, starting at Necho town located about 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside Addis Ababa.
The compound of Oromia’s Wolenkomi administration was ransacked and burned by hundreds of people who also destroyed other government buildings, including the police station, four days ago, said its guard Elias Wadaje in an interview.
Two of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups were involved in fatal clashes in the Oromia region that have displaced families and destroyed property, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council said.
Existing disputes between Oromo and Amhara people in Ameya Woreda of Oromia state flared on Dec. 12, according to Betsate Terefe, executive director of the Addis Ababa-based group. The conflict comes amid more than three weeks of protests across the region over a government plan to integrate the capital, Addis Ababa, with towns in Oromia.
“Real ethnic conflict broke out and is under way,” he said in an e-mailed statement on Sunday. “Many houses burned, people killed and wounded.” There is no evidence the Oromo protests are connected to the Ameya conflict, which was “instigated” by local officials to take resources from the Amhara in the area, he said.
Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic federation whose constitution gives groups the right to self-government and protects their language and culture. Oromo protesters say the plan for the capital will lead to a further loss of autonomy and marginalization for Oromo living on the outskirts of the capital. The government says integrated development will benefit everyone.
Security forces mostly left Ameya when they faced resistance after fatally shooting an Oromo farmer on Sunday, said Tesfaye Hirtasa, who’s visiting his family in the district.
Five people have died in the ethnic clashes, more than 10 properties have been razed and families are fleeing the fighting, he said by phone on Monday. “Everybody is full of fear, no one has security. Those who have armaments are protecting their house from any attack. Others are moving in the forest, others are taking their property to other places,” Tesfaye said. “Things are not stable, we are totally in danger.”
The situation in Ameya is because government agents incited ethnic violence to distract from the Oromo protest movement, said Bekele Gerba, the deputy leader of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress. More than 40 people have been killed by security forces during three weeks of protests, including over the last three days in the West Shewa zone that contains Ameya district, he said by phone from Addis Ababa on Monday.
Communications Minister Getachew Reda said a minimum of five people have died during the demonstrations, which he said started off largely peaceful and have degenerated into extremist Oromo groups trying to incite further unrest by attacking Amhara, officials, factories and government installations.
“The security forces will be taking very responsible and measured steps to neutralize the armed gangs which are now terrorizing the people in the region in those localities,” he said by phone from the capital on Monday.