West Arsi of Oromia at a Glance
This is an account of a small part of what’s been going on in West Arsi of Oromia last week. It’s very limited as I was unable to spend more than one morning in the area. On Wednesday in Bulbula, which is south of Ziway around 100 kilometers north of Shashamene, there was a vandalized Coca Cola truck and a torched tanker. There were also Derba Cement bags and smashed glass in a couple of places on the road, suggesting that was where the company’s trucks had been attacked. As with several places where there’d been protests, there wasn’t a heavy visible security presence, and most regular activity had resumed in the town. As we drove south, a Federal Police truck and pick-ups, followed by armed Oromia police, whizzed north in what looked like an emergency response.
On Wednesday night, part of Langano Lodge was burned to the ground. A couple of people in the area said the culprits were disgruntled locals. For example, a middle-aged guard said the resort was known for employing people from outside the area. Others, like Sabana Beach Resort, had a good reputation with residents, he said. As with other claims, I didn’t have a chance to verify these allegations.
Early on Friday morning, Shashamene appeared normal. It wasn’t hard to find people aware of what had been going on. One lady focused on how the Oromo protests in the area had caused problems for other groups, especially the Wolayta. That turned out to be a minority stance with everyone else emphasizing justified Oromo opposition to the government as the fundamental issue.
As widely reported, the protests in the area started in Aje a week before after police told a wedding party to stop playing a resistance song and the request was rejected. That led to a violent confrontation with civilians and police dying, although it wasn’t clear exactly what happened from the accounts I received. One guy reported that an Oromo Federal Police officer had objected to the security response and shot dead some of his colleagues. From there the discontent spread.
There had been a fracas around Shashamene bus station during the week. It sounded like primarily Oromo and Wolayta had clashed and the police had broken it up by firing in the air. There was no consensus on fatalities and casualties. Rumors abounded, with someone saying 60 houses had been burned down, and others saying that was a lie. It seemed there’d been a fight and police had quickly broken it up, partly by firing in the air. One account said a Tigrayan guy was arrested after he pulled a gun and challenged people to attack him.
On the road to Kofale, which is 27 kilometers east of Shashamene, there was evidence of roadblocks in many places. Most had been created by chopping down large Eucalyptus trees and laying them across the road. One area was covered with large boulders and a fertilizer store had been ransacked. It was apparent that plenty of communities and people had been involved in these acts of resistance.
One guy said in a matter-of-fact manner that during the unrest Amhara farmers had been intimidated to leave the area. But almost all interviewees – none of whom were youthful firebrands — stressed that if there were clashes between ethnic groups, they should be treated as a minor diversion, and were not the cause of the discontent. Perhaps even more so than in West Shoa a couple of months ago, people were clear that the underlying cause was a desire for a change in government. No longer would Oromo youth accept being ruled by Woyane, a man said. People didn’t want to be ruled by a dead man’s system, another said. A few refused to give their views, but no one spoke up in defense of the government. One guy said his land had been taken for water facilities and that there was too much tax on everything. A few spoke about a corrupted government that acts only in its interest and not the people’s.
On top of the underlying desire for political change, people also highlighted recent injustices with students killed and arbitrarily detained, and educated leaders arrested, as a major reason for ongoing resistance. One guy repeatedly said that protesters wanted to know where the authorities had taken their children. Nobody thought the situation was going to be resolved anytime soon.
It was said that 7 or 12 people had died in Kofale on Thursday, which was the only place to have a few (non-red beret) soldiers stationed visibly on its streets. There wasn’t much other obvious presence of security forces aside from one pick-up full of Federal Police that turned off the main road into a village.
More people had died further east in Dodola, including a friend of someone I spoke to. He said the guy, who didn’t know anything about politics, was taken at night by police and found dead in the morning.
Only the one lady in Shashamene referred to the alleged burning of churches. Everybody else responded that they hadn’t heard anything, or that it was a deliberate lie.
Despite the unrest, mini bus drivers and traders were traveling up and down the road as usual. There were also plenty of people around on the streets going about routine tasks. In a few places, pragmatic residents had started chopping up the trunks that had been used to block the road. Rather than a state of emergency, it felt more like active opposition to the government and the accompanying insecurity had become the new normal.
On the way back north, shortly before Arsi Negele, where it was market day, a few drivers panicked and turned around, presumably because they heard there was trouble ahead. The quickest to do U-turns were a couple of Dangote Cement truck drivers, but they needn’t had bothered, as it turned out to be a false alarm.