Ethiopia – Oromo Unrest

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With longstanding grievances still unanswered, this year’s Irreecha festival could be fraught with tensions, says Human Rights Watch.

Ethiopian government and security officials should act with restraint and take concrete steps to prevent injuries and deaths at this year’s Irreecha festival on October 1st, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released on September 19th.

Many people, likely hundreds, died in a stampede at last year’s festival, triggered by security forces’ use of teargas and obstruction of exits.

The festival, attended by massive crowds, is the most important cultural festival to Ethiopia’s 40m ethnic Oromos, who gather to celebrate the end of the rains and welcome the harvest.

HRW found evidence that security force personnel not only triggered the stampede that caused many deaths but subsequently shot and killed some members of the crowd.

Dozens of witnesses said they believed this was an intentional planned massacre by the government. HRW has seen no evidence of that, but the perception, coupled with the past two years of brutality, makes this year’s Irreecha a potential flashpoint, HRW said.

Tensions were already high ahead of the 2016 festival following a year of protests against the government and security force aggression that left more than 1,000 people dead and tens of thousands in detention.

Anger at the Irreecha deaths triggered unrest across Oromia as mobs of youths destroyed or looted government buildings and private businesses. On October 9th, the government announced a far-reaching state of emergency that codified vague and overly broad restrictions on basic rights and was only lifted in August 2017.

The government has expressed condolences for the deaths but has stated that security forces were not armed, despite photographic and video evidence to the contrary.

The prime minister congratulated security forces for their efforts to “maintain peace and order.” Government officials also have stated repeatedly that the situation was exacerbated by “anti-peace” elements in the crowd.

“Last year’s tragedy was triggered by the government’s botched effort to control the event,” Horne said. “This year, the government should consider whether a much lighter security force presence would best serve to minimise the potential for violence.”

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Oromo boys in Ethiopia – CC 2012

The warning came as a conflict that had been raging for months between Oromia and Somali regional states escalated in September in violent confrontations.

Demonstrators accuse a police unit of carrying out killings and human rights abuses against the Oromo people, while the government has blamed the clashes on a border dispute between the neighbours.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has called on major stakeholders to assist the government to achieve a durable peace among the feuding parties.

Desalegn reiterated that federal security officers had been deployed to secure areas in the troubled spots. He was speaking at a meeting with community elders, tribal and religious leaders at his office on September 16th, the state-owned Ethiopia News Agency reported.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – which is affiliated with the government and is “in no sense independent”, according to HRW – had been deployed to investigate rights violations in the conflict.

Head of Oromia Regional State Lema Megersa said the conflict is the result of criminal activities of individuals and does not represent the people and governments of the regional states.

Government spokesman Negeri Lencho said Somali Regional State put the death toll at more than 50, while Oromiya Regional State said only 18 people died, The Reporter said on the 16th.

(HRW 19; BBC News Online 13/9; Shabelle Media Network 17/9; BBC Monitoring 17/9)

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin: 

Ethiopia – State of Emergency Ends
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 54, Issue 8, pp. 21546B–21546C

Ethiopia – Arrests and Protests
Political, Social and Cultural Series
Vol. 54, Issue 7, pp. 21509A

ETHIOPIA: State of Emergency Extended
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 54, Issue 4, pp. 21402C–21403C

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Ethiopia – State of Emergency Lifted

The government halts security provisions but the ethnic tensions continue to bring violence.

The government has announced a relaxation of its state of emergency, lifting restrictions on the media and restoring some personal freedoms, Defence Minister Siraj Fegessa said on March 15th. Fegessa said the monitoring of media content and arbitrary searches would now cease.

Similar curfew restrictions that had been in place on industrial sites, which were targeted in arson attacks, have also been lifted. The state of emergency was declared on October 8th 2016 after a breakdown of law and order in the capital, Addis Ababa.

The crisis was catalysed by a stampede during the Irrecha festival outside the capital, during which witnesses claimed that police fired at the crowd.

The state of emergency had been intended to restore military style rule, but many armed incursions have continued along the borders into eastern and southern Oromoia, which borders the Somali regional state.

In east Hararghe, some 630km east of the capital Addis Ababa, militiamen conduct cross border raids in various localities. The border incursions have also hit West Hararghe, particularly Bordede woreda where more than 30 people were killed on February 22nd.

In south east of Ethiopia, some 450 km from the capital, similar incidents have occurred in Bale zone in Swena, Meda Wolabu and Dawe Serer woredas. As well as in Liben and Gumii Edelo woredas in Guji Zone of the Oromia regional state.

Many of those conducting raids are thought to be members of the Liyu Police, a paramilitary force set up by the Somali regional state in 2007 to counter the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in Ogaden region, in the east of the country.

The Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa said, over the past six months hundreds of Liyu police have entered Oromia villages and attacked, killed and looted, with the number of dead at around 200.

Oromo Woman – CC 2013

The boundary line between Oromia and Somali regional state is contested, and a border referendum was held in 2004 to determine resident’s choices. According to official results residents in close to 80% of disputed areas have voted to be under the Oromia regional state.

However Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2012 accused the special police of executing 10 men, being implicated in many other abuses against civilians under the context of counterinsurgency operations.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has accused some local leaders of inciting the ethnic clashes.

(Addis Standard 3/3; © AFP 3/1 2017; BBC Monitoring 9/3)

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:

ETHIOPIA: South-East Tension
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol. 54, Issue. 2, Pp. 21330A–21331A

ETHIOPIA: OFC Leader Detained [Free to Access]
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol. 53, Issue. 12, Pp. 21255A–21255B,

ETHIOPIA: State of Emergency
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol. 53, Issue. 10, Pp. 21167A–21170C

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Ethiopia – Oromia Violence Continues

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Without a fundamental change in development policy, rights groups claim that protests in the Oromia region will continue.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has deplored the lack of international coverage of protests in the Oromia region; the region has experienced widespread violence, with around 400 dead, many more injured and tens of thousands arrested, since November 2015.

The protests were originally triggered by the Addis-Ababa Master Plan, which proposed to extend the capital’s municipal boundaries outwards, forcing many Oromo farmers in the area to move. According to HRW there were at least 500 protests across all 17 regions of Oromia province, largely spurred by experiences of historic displacements and a lack of compensation.

HRW commented that Ethiopia has an ‘authoritarian development policy’, for example when large scale agricultural investments are made, local communities are rarely consulted about the decision and those who resist are often subject to heavy state repression.

Most of the protesters have been young students, particularly of primary, secondary and university age, many of the older generation have been more reserved due to past experiences of state crackdowns on dissent and protest.

The protesters have stated that it is a grassroots mobilisation organised mainly through social media and the independent Oromia Media Network. Despite the majority of protests being peaceful the Ethiopian security services have shot indiscriminately into crowds and made tens of thousands of arrests, with widespread allegations of violent methods and torture.

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Oromo Protest 2007 CC

In January 2016, the Ethiopian government did cancel the Master Plan in a rare concessionary move, but this did not stop the protesters, whose concerns had broadened to include the heavy-handed security response, arbitrary imprisonments and the discrimination of the ethnic Oromo.

One story, cited by HRW, said that a 17 year old student had gone to the protests not really understanding the issues, and after seeing his friend get shot he had ran to the Kenyan border, where he told a reporter that one minute he was worrying about school, the next he realised he may never see his family again. The story is familiar, with many thousands of student protestors forced to flee and seek asylum in neighbouring countries.

HRW commented that the United States (US) and other Ethiopian allies, particularly Britain, often highlight the regional counterterrorism initiatives the country is involved in, but turn a blind eye to the domestic violence; its position as the seat of the African Union (AU) and the fact that it hosts many thousands of refugees, makes public criticism of the security response more difficult.

Much of the limitations on the international coverage has been generated by the restrictions on reporting in the country, particularly for independent journalists. Similarly the ongoing food crisis – the worst famine since 1984-85 – has been the centre of global attention, which according to HRW has led “governments around the world to overlook or downplay the other very urgent crisis unfolding in Oromia.”

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Oromo Village CC – 2013

However, despite the cancellation of the master plan, the displacement of Oromo farmers is likely to continue, unless the government fundamentally alters its development trajectory by considering communities as meaningful partners.

The Addis Standard reported that despite the Ethiopian regime’s rhetoric of decentralisation to local governments, recent academic studies have shown that across different regions the service delivery from the local governments remained one of the most centralised, top down, hierarchical and government-controlled.

The experience of such a development apparatus has been a primary factor in catalysing protests. It contributed to a rising political consciousness for the Oromo people, through encounters with development and governmental administration, while also fostering a sense of invasion into their everyday lives and exclusion from consultation, reported the independent Addis Standard.

Earlier in April the Deputy Chairman of the largest Oromia political party, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Bekele Gerba, along with 21 others, were charged under a counter terrorism law; Bekele was accused of having links to the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Bekele described horrible conditions in detention at Maekalawi prison, including torture and widespread ill-treatment.

The security authorities also charged 20 young university students for protesting in front of the US Embassy in Addis Ababa in March this year, reported HRW.

The Oromo unrest marks the most serious domestic political crisis in Ethiopia in over a decade, with land becoming an increasingly prominent issue. Since 2009 the Ethiopian government has leased around 2.5m hectares to more than 50 investors from countries such as India, Turkey, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia.

While the government has accused outside factions, particularly the diaspora, over stirring the protests, Executive Director of the Oromia Media Network, Jawar Mohammed said, “the diaspora magnifies news of what is happening, yes, but no matter how much it agitates it cannot direct at the village level in Ethiopia – this is about dissatisfaction,” reported the Inter Press Service.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:

ETHIOPIA: Oromia Region Crackdown
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.53, Issue.3, Pp.20934C–20935C

ETHIOPIA: Addis Master Plan Scrapped
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.53, Issue.1, Pp.20861B–20862B

ETHIOPIA: Violent Repression of Oromo Protests (Free to Read)
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.52, Issue.12, Pp.20828C–20829B

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Ethiopia – Oromo Protests

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Government development plans spark protests as concerns mount over continued state repression.

Since November 2015 large scale protests have swept across Oromia, the largest region in Ethiopia, prompting a heavy handed response from the security services. Reports suggest that as many as 140 people have been killed and numerous opposition members arrested.

On January 12th the Ethiopian authorities announced the cancellation of its development master plan, which had been the catalyst for protests, although the unrest and state violence has continued. The master plan, proposed by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Addis-Ababa authority, intended to expand the borders of the capital outwards into the Oromia region, which surrounds the capital.

Oromos, the largest ethnic group in the country, have felt marginalised and excluded from decisions on government policy. Those who do voice their opposition are arrested and accused of belonging to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which the Ethiopian authorities have declared to be a terrorist organisation, even though the group has long been largely inactive.

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Source

According to independent reports as many as 140 people have been killed, although the Ethiopian government has disputed these figures. Abiy Berhane from Ethiopia’s London embassy said that the protests were hijacked “by people whose intention it was to induce violent confrontation”, reported BBC News. 

However a message on a Facebook page of a leading campaigner stated that Oromo activists have “dismissed” the government’s change of heart by cancelling the plans “as too little too late”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) commented that the protests could be the biggest political event in Ethiopia since elections in 2005 that led to a crackdown on protestors, with almost 200 killed and tens of thousands arrested.

According to one Oromo student, cited by HRW, “All we hear about is development. The new foreign-owned farms and roads is what the world knows, but that just benefits the government. For us [Oromos] it means we lose our land and then we can’t sustain ourselves anymore.”

Additionally, accessing information about incidents in the country is tricky, with Ethiopia one of the most restrictive environments for independent journalism. The last independent publishers closed down before the elections in May 2015.

State-run media has followed the government line, labelling the Oromo protestors terrorists who are “aiming to create havoc and chaos”. Even many ordinary people are scared to speak out, as those who have voiced their opinions to international media groups have also been arrested.

It is media outlets situated within the Ethiopian diaspora that play a key role in disseminating information, but in 2014 many people were arrested in the Oromia region for watching the diaspora-run Oromia Media Network (OMN). Social media has also played a big role in providing access to information, where people share photographic evidence of the ongoing state repression.

While the government has conceded to some degree by cancelling the development plan, there are concerns that the protests and violent state crackdown will continue until the government involves the Oromo communities in a meaningful way in the development process, claimed HRW.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin

ETHIOPIA: Violent Repression of Oromo Protests
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.52, Issue.12, Pp.20828C–20829B

ETHIOPIA: Defection of Rebels
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.52, Issue.9, Pp.20720A–20720B

Ethiopia Oromo People Targeted?
Political, Social & Cultural Series
Vol.51, Issue.11, Pp.20358B–20358C

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