When Crying is a Crime
17th February 2016 By Barii Gurmu
Ethiopia is often praised for being the home of diversity. Different nations live within the borders, all with their own language, culture, and history. The present government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is favored as democratic by the western world, and it has gained tremendous amounts of aid money. The truth, however, is far from the image that the rest of the world sees. In this story I am going to share what I have personally experienced and witnessed with regards to what the government of Ethiopia is doing to Oromo students and to clubs bearing the Oromo name.
After the fall of the Derg regime, the country adopted a constitution. The constitution clearly states that “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”. The right to speak, write and develop each nations own language, as well as developing, promoting and expressing its own culture and preserve the history, is also protected, just as the right to make peaceful demonstrations and the right to petition and assemble. Furthermore, everyone has the right to freedom of expression for any cause or purpose.
Like most fellow citizens and human rights organizations, I find it hard to shake the feeling that the promised constitutional rights and democracy in Ethiopia has gone seriously awry. It is left only being a paper lion; a means for the government to arrest those who have ever tried to exercise their rights – labeling them narrow minded, unified devastators, and most of all terrorists.
The violations of human rights, and the economic, political and social gap, are a reality we witness every day. In one form or another, the transgression has existed since the country’s birth. Resistance has also existed since that day. Wars have been fought, laws have been passed and systems have been reformed. Peaceful protests have been arranged in order to bring and claim human rights and the practice of the constitutional promise into closer alignment. But now, the government is buckling down, targeting those who try to exercise their human rights, and especially those who claim their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
I am now going to share about what happened during my stay at the University, the place we went to for learning and acquiring knowledge in order to serve our nation, but where we ended up facing harassments, intimidations, jailings, exile, suspension and expulsion – only for belonging to the Oromo ethnic group.
Harassment of Oromo Students
I was a graduate student at the Adama Science and Technology University (ASTU), and I was also a leader of the Oromo language, culture and history club which was founded by our seniors. Anyone who loves and supports the Oromo language, culture and history can be a member of the club and participate, irrespective of his or her ethnicity, status, political ideology, religion, group and background. Accordingly, it is free from any politics, religion, ideology and race. Its objective was to develop and promote Oromo language, culture and history.
Even though the club was created in accordance to the constitution, government agents targeted Oromo students and members of the club in general, and the club’s committee members in particular. A government agent at the University talked to me in an intimidating way. Several times he told me that the club’s committee, myself included, has to be members of the governing party and that the club has to invite and inform them in advance whenever there is a program or ceremony coming up. I told them that the club will not invite them officially, for doing so is contrary to the club’s rules. I told them that they can attend and that they have, just as anybody, the right to become members and contribute to the development of the nation’s language, culture and history. Surprisingly, there were no ceremonies they missed!
The government agents blamed the club for being a wing of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and for working on strengthening Oromo nationalism. Government agents urged and banned us from using unopened sycamore tree emblems, red and green markers, pens, balloons, bulbs, flowers, sprays, candles, and curtails for hall or office decorations. They wrote announcements or advertisements alleging that those colors together made the OLF flag. They imposed limitations on what guests we could invite, such as artists, poets, authors, singers, elders, well known Oromo businessmen and nationalists, and started suggesting which guests we could or could not invite. Any failure to uphold their rules automatically labeled the club as a wing of the OLF, and led to closure.
Arrested for Protesting
I was attending my last semester course, and the happiness of graduation was present everywhere in the school. Graduate students teased the junior students, saying “no more semester for us”, or they made cartoons displaying the end of classes. Everywhere, there were students dressed in suits, preparing parties, taking photos – everyone with excitement counting down the few months left until they would wear the graduation gown with a cap.
On the early morning of December 29, 2011, my roommate and I lined up at the café before rushing to the library. We accidently came across a gathering of students at the amphitheater, located in front of the students dining hall. We could not understand what was going on. Suddenly, we found ourselves in the middle of a crowd and the Students Union President suddenly showed up. One student said to him that they wanted him to call for the University’s administrators, the academic Vice-President, and the Head of the University’s International relations. This student wanted them to explain how they had handed down the suspension of Ebisa, a student whom the University suspended for a year, alleging that he had quarreled with a student of the Tigrean ethnic group over changing the Oromian TV channel to a channel airing the English Premier League. The students were disgruntled regarding the impartiality over the decision of the suspension, and kept on asking questions from the Students Union President. The President sent one campus police to deliver the errand to the administrators.
About one and a half hours later, neither the campus police nor the administrators had showed up. The students were at this point very upset and shouted: “See their ignorance even though they are here to serve us! Should we all go and meet them in their office? We claim justice, and justice should not only be done, but also seen to be done”, they hollered. They demanded transparency regarding how the University handles cases like the one of Ebisa – the question is not only about justice but also its publicity.
After having waited for a long time for the administrators, we were forced to the stage where the protest was held. We had hardly stood up before one student in the crowd started shouting “armed student among us!” The student thought that the armed person was a student, but he was a government agent sent to spy on the students. Suddenly, the agent dropped his pistol while he was moving to stand up. In the meantime, the student who shouted took the gun before the agent picked it up. Having realized that the student took up the pistol, the agent started running away from the mob. The student who took the pistol yelled “don’t let him escape! He is running there!” We were all shocked by what we heard and saw. The campus police came, registered the pistol’s number and collected it.
This made us start to march, demonstrating with the slogan: “We need justice! Stop suspending and expelling Oromo students! Stop letting armed people into the campus!” We conducted the demonstration peacefully. We told each other not to throw stones on people or on material things, in order not to cause damage. We had however scarcely stopped the demonstration before we heard rambling police in the campus. They were beating and arresting students, irrespective of they had participated on the stage or not. 53 students were arrested, and they were incarcerated in the police station.
I hope for government-agent-free institutions for education – in which everyone can learn in freedom and be treated alike.
The arrests continued during the following days. Lists of “wanted students” were made and they were given to the police. The police and security chased them in the café, in the library, in the entrance and in the dormitory in cooperation with the campus police. The arrested then spent three days in the police station and were then brought before court and charged. Fabricated witnesses were also produced and heard. In the charges, it was written that the students had instigated students to create chaos, that they disturbed the teaching and learning process and that they had damaged the property of the University. The suspects were requested to defend themselves, which they did. The court partially handed down a verdict of guilt, and sentenced the students to eight months to two years of imprisonment.The court, however, released them conditionally with a warning that any failure to uphold the conditions given could lead to re-arrest and make them serve the sentence.
The release of the students on January 22, 2012, although conditional, was good news. The relief did not last for long. The harassment of Oromo students continued. The University took administrative measures and dismissed four students and suspended 20 more. Some students could return, but only after they had been forced to sign strict conditions. The conditions are very similar to those mentioned in the 2014 report Because I am Oromo by Amnesty International, in which former Oromo detainees are interviewed. The former detainees said that their release was “premised on their agreement to a set of arbitrary conditions unlawfully imposed by their captors.” The conditions that the students had to sign were as follows: “I have participated in the violence, and I shall hereafter not participate in the Oromo language, culture and history club or in demonstrations or other gatherings for any cause, political meetings or student activities; not meet with more than two or three individuals at one time and not have any contact with certain people. Failure to uphold the commitment will automatically result with either suspension or dismissal.”
Some students were forced to suspend their studies and flee the country for the fear of the consequences they would face if they failed to uphold the conditions. The fear of consequences is also mentioned in the report by Amnesty, who has interviewed former detainees: “…it was the difficulty of complying with these conditions and the restricting impact they had on their lives, or fear of the consequences if they failed to comply, intentionally or unintentionally, that caused them to flee the country.”
We suspected that the University alone would not have handed down such merciless measures on the judicially permitted students, in order to hinder them to return to their usual lives. One of the dismissed students objected the measure and asked what the committed fault was. “You cried for the suspended students”, they replied. Another student was punished with dismissal, and he posed the same question and was answered in like. These decisions were not made by the University administration alone. According to mentioned Amnesty report, the decision of suspension and expulsion reflected “the involvement of local officials and/or security services, in the same way that the involvement of local civilian authorities and local and federal security services was reported in the surveillance and arrest of students suspected of dissenting tendencies, often in co-operation with academic staff.” We often saw the security from Adama City, the East Shoa Zone and the Federal Security consulting the administrators.
Change is Inevitable
The Ethiopian government is buckling down on Oromo students from all walks of life. They are harassing them for speaking their mind and for exercising their human rights and their constitutional rights. But the more the government continues harassing, the more the time of its ruling will be shortened. The rest of the world is praising the government, but it needs to be made clear that it is difficult to expect a sustainable political, economic and social stability and change from a government that mercilessly expels students and thereby robs them of the most powerful weapon – education – that could change the country.
Change is inevitable. I hope for government-agent-free institutions for education – in which everyone can learn in freedom and be treated alike. A brighter day will come for the Oromo people – a brighter day where we will be out of this political, economic and social darkness. And it will come through a persevering struggle; a struggle that is knocking both on the door of the enemy as well as the door of the world. If we stay united – the wind which waves our flag will blow from all directions.
For security and safety reasons the names of persons in this story, including the author, have been withheld.