The Oromo protests in Ethiopia. The issue has received little attention in global mainstream media, but it is one that demands our attention. The latest news coming out of the East African nation is troubling, with at least 140 protesters killed in the past few months, according to Human Rights Watch. This represents the greatest bloodshed facing the East African nation since 2005, when 200 people died in post-election violence. Moreover, based on data from #EthiopiaCrisis, 2,000 reportedly have been injured, 30,000 arrested and 800 disappeared.
As Al Jazeera reported, police were accused of opening fire and killing dozens of protesters in April and May of 2014.
With the largest population of any of the federal states in Ethiopia, Oromia has a population of about 27 million—40 percent of the country’s population. The nation’s largest ethnic group, Oromians have their own language, Oromo, which is separate from the official language, Amharic.
At issue in the current conflict is the convergence of ethnic strife, land and economics, beginning with the expansion of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. As NPR reported, the larger picture is that the world is growing, and there is a big demand for food and arable land. Africa has 60 percent of the usable farmland, and in Ethiopia, the government, which owns all of the nation’s land, has leased large parcels of land to foreign investors from China, India and the Mideast.
In November, protests were set off when a forest was being cleared for development, as part the “master plan” by the Ethiopian government to expand the capital city into surrounding farmland in Oromia. Supporters of greater urbanization, known as the Integrated Regional Development Plan for Addis Ababa, note that the nation faces a food shortage. They believe the nation is susceptible to famine because too many Ethiopians live in rural areas and depend on agriculture. However, people in Oromia claim they are being displaced from their ancestral lands.
As VOA reported, the government plans to develop the farmland outside Addis Ababa into a new business zone. Protesters claim the plan will result in marginalization and reduced autonomy for the Oromo people living outside the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government claims the development project on the farmland will lead to new business and benefits to all groups.
As the Washington Post recently reported, President Obama has expressed concern over the events in Ethiopia, while also saying the “United States has consistently applauded Ethiopia for being a model and a voice for development in Africa.”
The nation has been hailed by the U.S. for its economic growth and engaging in the war against al-Shabab, the Somali terrorist group. And Ethiopia has reportedly received substantial aid from the U.S. in this regard. At the same time, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front regime has been accused of silencing protest and dissent. For example, Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress—Oromia’s largest registered political party—was arrested. In addition, the government also allegedly arrested and beat Oromo singer Hawi Tezera, who has a song about the protests.
Further, there are reports of the Ethiopian government clamping down on media outlets covering the protests. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the nation is one of the leading jailers of journalists. Authorities have reportedly arrested journalists such as Getachew Shiferaw, editor in chief of the Negere Ethiopia news site, under terrorism charges, and Fikadu Mirkana of Oromia Radio and TV. Further, according to the Post, the government jammed the broadcasting satellite of the U.S.-based television channel ESAT, which has been reporting on the demonstrations by students and farmers.
Although the most recent catalyst for recent protests is the development plan to expand Addis Ababa into Oromia—of which millions of farmers fear displacement—there have been tensions and grievances developing for quite some time. The Oromo have expressed a sense of marginalization and being pushed out of mainstream national life.
According to the group Global Voices, of the nearly 140 peaceful protesters killed in Ethiopia since November, most were killed at close range. More than 70 percent of the dead are reportedly male students, with male farmers accounting for around 20 percent of the deaths. Also among the victims are women and school teachers, including one seven-month pregnant woman and her sister-in-law, who were killed while attempting to escape arrest. Further, at least 10 people were reportedly tortured and killed while in prison, according to Global Voices.
Meanwhile, this round of protests is believed to be unprecedented because of broad-based support and participation—with inter-ethnic coalitions despite the ethnic lines marking the country, including a number of non-Oromo civic groups and political organizations. They are also employing tactics of civil disobedience such as lunch boycotts, sit-ins and roadblocks.
However, the Ethiopian government has characterized its response as being part of the war on terror. Authorities accuse protesters of having links to terrorist groups, according to the Sudan Tribune, and announced that the nation’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force would be leading the response.
“By treating both opposition politicians and peaceful protesters with an iron fist, the government is closing off ways for Ethiopians to nonviolently express legitimate grievances,” said Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch, according to Al Jazeera. “This is a dangerous trajectory that could put Ethiopia’s long-term stability at risk,” he warned.