By Mekuria Bulcha
The so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan (AAMP) has ignited an Oromia-wide protest involving university and high school students. The TPLF-led Ethiopian regime has responded to the peaceful protests staged by Oromo students against the plan with tanks and live ammunition, killing dozens in the crowds. The protest, which started on April 24, 2014 at Jimma University, is joined not only by tens of thousands of the students of all the universities in Oromia but also tens of thousands of high school students and members of the local population in many cities, towns and villages. The voice of this massive Oromo rally against the AAMP cannot be silenced by bullets and tanks as in the past. It concerns not only the cause of the Oromo farmers in Central Oromia, whose livelihoods will be affected by the AAMP, but also that of all the Oromo farmers and pastoralists throughout Oromia whose farms and pasturelands have already been sold and are targeted to be sold to land grabbers by the present Ethiopian regime. In short, it concerns the survival of the Oromo as a nation.
It is important to note that the conflict over the AAMP is an extension of the conflict which was ignited by the 2003 decision of the TPLF regime to evict Oromo institutions from Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) city and relocate them to Adama, a town about 100km to the southeast.Then the Oromo attempted to stop the eviction with peaceful protest but were met with atrocities by the TPLF regime. Leaders of the Maccaa Tuulama Association (MTA) and university students who organized that protest were arrested and jailed. The property of the MTA, a self-help organization which was established in 1963, was confiscated outright by the government. More than 300 students were expelled from the Addis Ababa University alone. Regrettably the struggle over Finfinnee which started 11 years ago is not over. The impunity of the TPLF regime, as reflected in the killings of many students who opposed the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan, has continued.
In this article, I will attempt to explain why the present regime is consistently refusing to pay attention to Oromo grievances, such as the present student protest, even when expressed through peaceful means in keeping with the current constitution. I will also point out why the opposition started by the students of Jimma University on April 24 against the AAMP has turned into an Oromia-wide movement within a very short time. I will discuss how the uprising will reinvigorate the Oromo struggle for independence. In a speech he made at a demonstration staged to oppose the removal of Oromia’s capital from Finfinnee in 2003, the late Secretary General of the Maccaa Tuulamaa Association, Obbo Bekele Nadhi said that
The decision that Finfinnee [the Oromo name for Addis Ababa] is no more the Oromo capital is wrong. Oromo claim over Finfinnee is historical and legal. Therefore, we demand that the decision be revoked. Until the decision is revoked we will continue with our protest. If our protests will not change the situation, we will continue with the next phase of our struggle (Gadaa.com. April, 2014; translated from Afaan Oromoo by the author)
The TPLF regime was forced to halt the eviction of Oromo institutions from the city in 2005 under pressure from both Oromo and non-Oromo opposition. That did not mean that Finfinnee was made to serve the Oromo people. In reality, the regime did not withdraw its decision, and the struggle over Finfinnee was not concluded. For unknown reasons, the Oromia Regional State did not build Oromo institutions in the city during the last two decades. Finfinnee (Addis Ababa), which is constitutionally the capital city of Oromia, is without a single public school that uses the Oromo language as a medium of instruction or a single newspaper which is printed in Afaan Oromoo. All of the newspapers which were started in the early 1990s were banned and their journalists were in jail or in exile by the end of the decade. To paraphrase what the young Oromo artist Jaafar Yuusuf has expressed with poetic eloquence and for which he was detained and tortured, Finfinnee is the capital city of Oromia and of over 35 million Oromos only in name. Thus, despite their historical and “special constitutional interests,” the Oromo who number between half a million and eight hundred thousand (or 20% of 4 million inhabitants of the city, UN Habitat, 2007) are marginalized and denied the use of their language. Finfinnee remains an Oromo city under a foreign occupation.
The ‘right of conquest’ versus the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995
Many observers refer to the expansion of Finfinnee city as unconstitutional. They refer particularly to Article 49 (5) of the TPLF Constitution of 1995 which talks about “the special interest of the state of Oromia with respect to supply of services, the utilization of resources and joint administrative matters.” The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi conceded to Oromia’s claim over Finfinnee city in 1991 to convince the OLF to stay in the Transitional Government. In retrospect it appears that the concession was made to appease the Oromo only until the Meles regime consolidated its control over opponents rather than a genuine recognition of Oromo rights. Although it was included as a provision in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995, the agreement was ignored as soon the OLF left the Transitional Government in June 1992. The TPLF regime did not implement the terms of the agreement it had entered with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) over the city of Finfinnee. Indeed, the TPLF did (does) not see what it does in Oromia in legal or constitutional terms. It considers its control over Oromo territory and its resources in terms of the traditional colonial notion of “the right of conquest.”
Although the right of conquest was once recognized formally in international law it is no longer; yet the TPLF regime is still exercising it. As the TPLF representative has clearly, and indeed arrogantly, told the OPDO at a televised meeting in Adama recently (ETV April 14, 2013), the regime will implement the AAMP irrespective what the Oromo think. This statement was directed at the OPDO party members he was addressing. In plain language he was saying that the Oromo should keep quiet; they do not have rights to land. What he meant was carried out in practice after a few days. Those who peacefully gathered to protest the AAMP were cut down in Ambo, Naqamtee, Jimma, and Haramaya by bullets, or were beaten and imprisoned. In short, the TPLF leaders were asserting an illegitimate “right of conquest” when they drew up the AAMP without consulting the very OPDO members who are legally entitled to make all decisions that affect Oromia. The leaders of the international community (the UN member states) appear to recognize the TPLF-led regime, not because it has achieved internally legitimacy, but because it exhibits the power to maintain “peace and order” in the country. Regrettably, the definition of “peace” and the choice of the means used tomaintain“peace and order” are left to the discretion of Ethiopian authorities. Oddly, what is being exercised as maintenance of peace and order by the Ethiopian regime is, by and large, accepted by the UN and its member states as “normal.” But what may seem normal for them from distance is in reality state terrorism from the vantage point of Oromo and other peoples in Ethiopia.
Yet Oromo appeals to the international community or attempts to employ legal discourse, have not managed to stop the Ethiopian regime from pursuing an antiquated “rights of conquest” at all. The Greek historian John Markakis (see hisEthiopia: the Last Two Frontiers, 2011: 284) has reminded the Oromo (particularly the leaders of the OLF) to learn from the past, and give up all expectations for external intervention on behalf of our people. The question of Oromo survival cannot wait for the time when the big powers will prioritize human rights over strategic interests and take action by going beyond the barricades of sovereignty to take action against the regime for its egregious violation of human rights. Neither can the people wait until the international community is finally repulsed by the immorality involved in the persecution of the Oromo and advocate for Oromo rights, pushing for big powers to take action. The present Oromo situation requires immediate action. That means Oromo action. I do not mean that advocates should stop presenting the Oromo cause to the international community, but that it is not enough even to ensure the survival of the Oromo as a people let alone the achievement of their national emancipation.It is well known among observers that the TPLF leaders have been using or subverting the law to advance their interests, and that they do not respect the same law when it does not serve their purpose. Therefore, it is naïve to argue about the unconstitutionality of the AAMP with them. It is futile to expect the TPLF to honor or work to implement the provisions of their own constitution.
The role of the OPDO: some signs of change in the right direction
The fact that OPDO officials and members were not informed about the Addis Ababa Master Plan until the Oromo students of Jimmaa University started to protest should not surprise us. The TPLF rules Oromia with a decision-making arrangement made of two tiers of which the upper occupied by the Tigrayans and the lower by the native conquered peoples, of which the Oromo is the largest group. The structure is hegemonic and colonial. Those who occupy the upper tier make all of the important economic and political decisions often without consulting those who are in the lower tier. The latter are made to implement the decisions irrespective of the negative impacts they may have on them and “their” Oromo constituency. That is why the few OPDO officials such as Mr. Kuma Damaksa, the former Mayor of Finfinnee and Mrs. Aster Mammo, the Deputy Prime Minister, who might have known about the AAMP, did not inform other OPDO members until the project was ready for implementation. When the controversy broke out, these OPDO leaders were praising the “government” as a guarantor of peace, justice and equality on the national TV, while the next day the forces of the same government were using live bullets and killing Oromo students who were peacefully exercising their democratic rights in protest. According to a political scientist from the Addis Ababa University all the top leaders of the OPDO, including those who have ministerial positions are, in the parlance of the Oromo population, “zabanya Tigree” –“the house keepers of Tigrayans.” That is to say, they are not the protectors of Oromo rights and interests.
It seems that the OPDO’s behaviour described above is changing now. It is encouraging to hear particularly about the resolution of the local Oromo police who, in many places such as Jimma and Naqamtee, have allowed the students to continue with the peaceful protests against the AAMP apparently refusing to take orders from the federal authorities to stop the students. It is said that some of the local Oromo police have been disarmed and dismissed from their posts for lack of loyalty to the regime. It was to be expected that part of the Oromia regional police force would eventually stop serving as zabanya Tigree while the rights of the Oromo people are blatantly violated by the TPLF regime. However, as reflected in the comment of the TPLF representative at the Adama meeting on the AAMP, the regime does not care about what the OPDO think, but will proceed to implement the project as scheduled.
Ethiopia: the predatory state
The historian Tibebu Teshale (see his The Making of Modern Ethiopia, 1995) has pointed out that the Abyssinian state was “by and large a predatory state” that lived by looting the peasants. When one speaks about a predatory state one refers to the habits and practices of its rulers and their agents. In practice Abyssinian rulers relate to the Oromo as predators relate to prey. The Ethiopian state has survived for more than 130 years mainly on Oromo resources. To this day, its ruling elites have failed to change the predatory behavior that characterizes their relationship to the Oromo people. They have continued to be as cruel to the Oromo as predators are to prey. Predators do not produce. They hunt, kill and consume. They survive on their prey. Predation and violence are interrelated even among humans. A robber often has to frighten or kill the owner to get his or her property. Conquerors and colonizers must suppress and intimidate the conquered or colonized to exploit their resources. The degree of violence used to exploit the conquered differs from conqueror to conqueror and can vary from persuasive intimidation to violent acts that can cause the feelings of terror. Violent methods have been used by the Ethiopian rulers to control resources that belonged to the Oromo and the other conquered peoples. The TPLF regime has surpassed its predecessor in using extreme forms of violence against the Oromo to expropriate their resources. It has been using summary arrests, concentration camps, torture, extra-judicial killings and “disappearances” to terrorize them.The ongoing killings and imprisonment of students, who have voiced their opposition against the AAMP peacefully, show that the regime will terrorize the people in order to implement its projects.
The leaders and members of the TPLF have benefited enormously from the use violence during the last two decades. It is common knowledge that many of the TPLF leaders and fighters whose southward march was caused by the great Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, and who came to Oromia with empty pockets in 1991 are extremely rich today. Thousands of them have become owners of luxurious homes in Finfinnee and other cities, expensive cars, fat bank accounts and vast assets in real estate, commercial farms and business in record time. They could do this, because, soon after they took power by force in 1991, they expropriated banks, industrial plants, commercial farms, transport firms and travel agencies which belonged to the state (built on the resources of the southern people, primarily the Oromo) under the Dergue. Since they controlled the state no one could question what they did with the expropriated state properties. Therefore, they had used the assets, sold the state properties to themselves and had set up a conglomeration called Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) in 1995 as a holding company for an expanding group of industrial, financial and service enterprises that came to dominate the entire economy of Ethiopia.
However, the TPLF leaders did not stop after the expropriation of the above mentioned assets. They continued with their predatory activities and became, albeit indirectly, owners of all urban and rural land which was nationalized by the state during the Dergue era. Consequently, they have been evicting the Oromo and the other non-Abyssinian peoples from their homes, and selling their land to domestic and foreign land grabbers during the last fifteen years. As eloquently laid out in Bekele Garba’s speech from 2010, they have amassed (and are amassing) enormous assets in real estate and bank accounts (the speech is accessed at Gadaa.com.com. archive, May, 21, 2014). By and large, the indigenous people are not consulted about or compensated for the land from which they are evicted. Instead they are treated as squatters. A case in point is what happened in Bakko in western Oromia when the Karuturi Universal moved in with bulldozers and tractors and destroyed the pastures of the indigenous people, blocked their access to water and to their farmlands (Vidal, the Guardian, March 21, 2011). In the language of some cynical ‘economists’ this is called ‘development.’
Only a few of the indigenousinhabitants are employed as laborers on the commercial farms owned by land grabbers while the majority are cleared off the land altogether. What is also remarkable is that the majority of domestic commercial farm owners are Tigrayans. According to researchers from the Oakland Institute (OI) in California, USA, “almost all of the domestic agricultural investment lands are held by the Tigrayans” (OI, 2011: 23). Citing a regional government official in Gambella they wrote that “75 percent of the domestic investors in Gambella were from Tigray” and that many of them “seem to have limited, if any, farming experience” and were engaged primarily in charcoal production activities, cutting down the trees and leaving the land bare. Although detailed information is lacking the overall situation in Oromia where the regime has leased land to 899 contractors (OI, 2011: 26) may not differ much from that in Gambella.
Much of the so-called double-digit growth ascribed to the Ethiopian economy in recent years is the phenomenal increase of the assets of TPLF leaders and their supporters; it has little to do with the improvement of the living conditions of the millions of famine victims who survive on international food handouts from year to year. The leaders of the TPLF and their agents are clever not only at creating fear but also in benefiting enormously from the terror they use, particularly against the Oromo people.The AAMP is essentially an extension of the two-decades-long profitable TPLF undertaking described above. When implemented, it will become one of the biggest sources of income for its leaders and their agents. The huge chunk of territory which the AAMP is designed to cover will be divided between the TPLF leaders, TPLF members and their supporters. It will provide them with an opportunity to invest the financial assets they have been amassing so far in new real estate that will bring them more money and power. They will also sell the land from which the Oromo are evicted to others in order to make larger amounts of money.
Politically, the AAMP may also profit the TPLF regime. The income from it will, without doubt, enhance its political power. It can buy lobbyists in Washington, London, Brussels, etc. and garner diplomatic support from political leaders and opinion makers. The Amhara elites who have been critical of what they call the TPLF ‘ethnic politics’ (which recognized Oromo identity and allowed them to use the Oromo language officially) will, without doubt, support the implementation of the AAMP, albeit in silence. On the other hand, the regime has underestimated the great risk it is taking by trampling on Oromo national rights so blatantly. It has undermined the survival of the Ethiopian state it will continue to rule. To start with, through the AAMP the TPLF regime has, as its predecessors had done in the past, proved that the interest of the Abyssinian elites and the rights of the Oromo people are irreconcilable. Gains to be made by the Tigrayan leaders and their followers through the expansion of Finfinnee city are costing the Oromo their lives and livelihood. It has made the democratization of Ethiopia, which is the slogan of pro-Ethiopia Oromo parties, an illusion. The attempts by pro-Ethiopia Oromo politicians who tend to overlook the colonial history of Ethiopia and wish to build an Ethiopian state to suit Oromo interest have lost the limited relevance they may have had hitherto among some Oromos. The TPLF policy has alienated those Oromos who were sympathizers of the TPLF regime including a section within the OPDO. This was reflected in the indignity felt and the opposition voiced bymembers ofthe OPDO who participated in an information meeting on the AAMP in Adama (ETV April 14, 2004).
2014 is not 1878 – the Oromo have rallied to oppose the AAMP
As I have discussed elsewhere (see Bulcha, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation,2011), the Gullellee Oromo lost the battle over Finfinnee in 1878 against Amhara forces led by Menelik’s cousin Mashasha Seifu because they lacked firearms. They were not supported by other Oromos. Few Oromos knew what was happening in Finfinnee. Those who knew about it may have not considered what happened in Finfinnee their business and did not come to rescue them. But 2014 is not 1878. The Oromo have learnt from experience and history that what affects an Oromo community anywhere affects the Oromo as a whole. Collective memory helps a society to understand both its past, present, and by implication, to imagine its future. It is needless to emphasis here that it is the memory of past injustices and the sinister aim of the TPLF regime against the future of the Oromo nation which stir the present opposition against the AAMP. The AAMP violates the territorial integrity and identity of the Oromo and their aspiration to nationhood to live as a free and sovereign people in their homeland. Therefore, they are rallying inself-defense not only across Oromia but also across the globe. Rallies in support of those who are opposing the AAMP at home have been organized simultaneously by Oromo communities in over 40cities across the world starting from Wellington in New Zealand in the east to Los Angeles in the west and from Stockholm in the north to Johannesburg in the south. The rallies have brought together men and women, young and old, Christians, Muslims and Waqeefffataa who demand that the AAMP be stopped immediately. More than 90 percent of the tens of thousands of the diaspora Oromo who participated in the rallies are refugees displaced from their homeland by the TPLF regime during the last two decades. For them, as it is for the Oromo at home, the struggle over Finfinnee is a struggle for Oromia. The Gullallee Oromo were alone when they faced the Shawan forces in 1878. It is not the case with the inhabitants of the districts over which the TPLF regime will implement the AAMP. Their cause is the cause of the Oromo people at large.
The AAMP, land grabbing and Oromia’s territorial identity
It is estimated that over the last twenty years more than 150,000 Oromos have been displaced as the city expanded. The AAMP aims to expand the city over an area of more than one million hectares affecting 10 districts and many towns. The majority of the inhabitants of these places cannot avoid eviction. Those who will manage to stay will be marginalized like present Oromo inhabitants of Finfinnee city. In addition, that the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan is a scheme that will destroy Oromia as a territorial entity seems to be clear to every Oromo. Oromo artists, poets and political commentators have described the AAMP as a scheme that will cut Oromia apart. Territorially the project will cut out the Tuulama highlands which constitute the heartland of the Oromo territory and call it Greater Addis Ababa (see my previous article on the subject: “Eviction of Oromo Institutions from Finfinnee/Addis Ababa – A New Trend in Human Rights Violation by the Ethiopian State”, December, 2003, ). Figuratively expressed, the AAMP is indeed a dagger pointed at the “heart” of Oromia. The uprising which is triggered by the AAMP among the Oromo at home and in the diaspora concerns not only the survival of Oromia as a contiguous geographical entity, but also the survival of the Oromo as a nation. It is no wonder that the Oromo youth are ready to make sacrifices and oppose the implementation of the AAMP. The project is an attack on their national identity and their future. Therefore, they are acting in spite of the danger posed to their lives by the ruthless security forces of the TPLF regime. As has been expressed eloquently in poems, songs and articles produced by Oromos at home and in the diaspora during the last three weeks, the Oromo cannot afford to leave the regimealone to implement its anti-Oromo project. To put this analogically, the AAMP has put the Oromo nation in a state which looks like the situation of a person who is threatened with a knife pointed at him or her by an assailant. Such a person must not be paralyzed by fear of death. He or she must defeat fear and fight back in order to survive. That is what the Oromo youth are doing and are also expecting from the rest of the Oromo population. For an oppressed or a colonized people, defeating fear is a crucial initial step toward liberation. It is common knowledge that it is not the first time for the Oromo to make great sacrifices in defense of their human rights, but it can be concluded that the current uprising led by the Oromo youth is the beginning of a new chapter in the struggle for the liberation of the Oromo nation. The situation demands a revolution, and what they have set in motion is a revolution for survival.
The Tigrayan elites who are ruling Ethiopia today are more destructive than the Haile Selassie and the Dergue regimes had been. They are displacing the Oromo from the land of their ancestors and are selling it to outsiders. They are destroying not only Oromo homes, Oromo communities, and Oromo lives but also changing the demographic identity of the land the Oromo have inherited from their ancestors. The Haile Selassie regime “Amharized” Oromo place names such as Bishoftu, Adama, etc. to Amharic names such as Debre Zeit and Nazret. It tried, but it did not succeed in destroying the Oromo culture and language or Amharize their inhabitants. With its demise in 1974 the Oromo reclaimed their old place names and Debre Zeit became Bishoftu and Nazret became Adama. The TPLF regime is changing the demographic (hence linguistic and cultural) identity of rural and urban Oromo territories by displacing their indigenous inhabitants. The method used by the TPLF regime is direct and brutal—it uproots and displaces the people. The regime kills those who oppose its plans. If the AAMP is implemented and the majority of their Oromo inhabitants are displaced, Sululta, Sabbataa, Akaki, etc. may remain as place names without the sociological, cultural and historical content they possess at present. They will lose their Oromo culture, their Oromo language and identity. They will cease to be part of the Oromo territory. By and large, that is what the TPLF regime is doing, and will continue to do by implementing the AAMP and similar projects in other parts of Oromia if the current Oromo uprising fails to stop it once for all.
.The “right of conquest” has a long tradition and was accepted among states in the past. This is because it was believed that the forces of the conquering state, being by definition stronger than those who are lawfully entitled to rule the conquered territory in question, are more likely to secure peace and maintain order. That was particularly the case with European colonies in Africa, Latin America and Asia in the past.
Mekuria Bulcha, PhD and Professor of Sociology, is an author of widely read books and articles. His most recent book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, is published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999).