By Owei Lakemfa
ETHIOPIA is primarily in the news this week, but not because it is hosting the on-going African Union (AU) Heads of State Summit. Rather, it is about two worrying developments. The advancing drought for which needed international funds are in short supply and an estimated 350,000 newborns are expected in drought-affected communities between March and August, 2016.
The other reason is the renewed violent protests by the Oromo in which 140 souls have been dispatched by security forces to early graves.
The protests are not coming to me and other Ethiopia watchers as a surprise. I told myself in 2013 after a visit to the holiday resort town of Debre Zeyit, a picturesque haven with five crater lakes, that violent reaction was not far from the surface. At the resort, I got confused after realising that I was actually in Bishoftu, and the signboards were there to announce where I actually was. My confusion was cleared when I was educated that the two names were for one and the same town. The official name for many years; Debre Zeyit was the Amharic name which is the official language of the country, while the inhabitants who are Oromo insist on the traditional name, Bishoftu. I dug deeper, and found that all the way from the resort to Addis Ababa, the capital, shops and businesses have two names; one written in the official language, and the other in Oromo. This was a show of Oromo nationalism. The Oromo who constitute 40 percent of the Ethiopian population feel marginalised, oppressed and repressed. They think their language and culture have been relegated to the background.
The immediate trigger of the protests is government decision to implement an Addis Ababa Master Plan which would further expand the capital and develop the outlining farmlands near it into a business zone. But the Oromo who own those lands will have none of it. They see the plan as an attempt by other ethnic groups to seize more of their lands. The protesting Oromo have not forgotten that they are the original owners of the capital before they were conquered by the Christian Abyssinian Kingdom which then moved its capital to Oromo land, and established Addis Ababa in 1886.
To be sure, Ethiopia is a very complex country. For many years, the Amharic who are 30 percent of the population, ruled, first as a monarchy and later as a military junta under the Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Tigrayans who constitute 15 percent were regarded as the warriors while the Oromo felt left out. From the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie (said to be actually of Oromo parentage) to Mengistu, there was an armed rebellion by three components parts of the country. The Oromo had in 1973 founded the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) with the objective of winning self-determination for the Oromo. The Tigrayans founded the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) while the Eritreans founded the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) The combined forces and pressure of the three groups were too much for the Mengistu regime which gave way.
With that collapse, the Eritreans gained independence and became a separate country while the Tigray-dominated Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Meles Zenawi Asres, pushed into the country and seized power. With that, the power equation in the country changed with the Tigrayans becoming the new ruling group.
Feeling increasingly marginalised, the Oromo bided their time for the return to democratic rule under which they hoped to use their numerical strength to gain political power. There was also understandable disaffection amongst the Amharic. In the 1995 and 2000 elections, the ruling party won easily amidst claims by the opposition that force, intimidation and rigging gave the winners victory.
However, the 2005 elections were different. The opposition led by the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD)made a very strong showing and believed it had won the elections. The CUD for instance, won all the 23 seats in Addis Ababa and made good showing in the Oromo, Amharic and Southern areas. The official election results however gave a different narration; the ruling party had 327 seats, its allies, 40 seats while the opposition seats increased from 12 in the previous elections, to 174. The official results triggered street protests in November 2005 in which security forces allegedly gunned down hundreds of persons. The government followed up with the mass arrests of the opposition including the Mayor of Addis Ababa, local election observers and thirteen journalists. They were charged with treason which attracted the death penalty.
The Oromo claimed that between 2005 and 2008, 594 Oromo were extra-judicially executed while 43 disappeared. The renewed protests by Oromo is therefore not unexpected. Similar protests in April and May, 2014 led to another round of killings.
But it must be emphasised that the challenge in Ethiopia is not primarily about the Oromo; there is marked depression in the country with many, including journalists fleeing. Freedom of expression and press freedom are observed more in the breach and many Ethiopians have left the country to do menial jobs mainly in the Middle East where they have no labour rights. Many have also embarked on the perilous journey of crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded, makeshift boats to seek refuge in Europe.
But the country can still avoid catastrophe by the government employing dialogue and making concessions. For instance, if it must go ahead with its Addis Ababa Master Plan, it needs to negotiate with the owners of the lands to be affected. Labeling the farmers and students leading those protests as terrorists and using that as a pretext to physically eliminate them, is dangerous. Also, the Tigray-dominated government nominally led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgn (who is from Southern Ethiopia) needs to relax the rules in the country and allow fundamental human rights to reign. But if it insists on a continued clamping of the lid on Ethiopians, one day, the lid will blow off and Africa may experience another tragedy with a huge toll on human lives. Now is the time to take a new direction.