Oromo Activists Fight US-Backed Land Seizures
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Yehun and Miriam have little hope for the future.
“We didn’t do anything and they destroyed our house,” Miriam told me. “We are appealing to the mayor, but there have been no answers. The government does not know where we live now, so it is not possible for them to compensate us even if they wanted.”
Like the other residents of Legetafo—a small, rural town about twenty kilometers from Addis Ababa—Yehun and Miriam are subsistence farmers. Or rather, they were, before government bulldozers demolished their home and the authorities confiscated their land. The government demolished fifteen houses in Legetafo in July.
The farmers in the community stood in the streets, attempting to prevent the demolitions, but the protests were met with swift and harsh government repression. Many other Oromo families on the outskirts of Ethiopia’s bustling capital are now wondering whether their communities could be next.
These homes were demolished in order to implement what’s being called Ethiopia’s “Integrated Master Plan.” The IMP has been heralded by its advocates as a bold modernization plan for the “Capital of Africa.”
The plan intends to integrate Addis Ababa with the surrounding towns in Oromia, one of the largest states in Ethiopia and home to the Oromo ethnic group—which, with about a third of the country’s population, is its largest single ethnic community. While the plan’s proponents consider the territorial expansion of the capital to be another example of what US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the country’s “terrific efforts” toward development, others argue that the plan favors a narrow group of ethnic elites while repressing the citizens of Oromia.
“At least two people were shot and injured,” according to Miriam, a 28-year-old Legetafo farmer whose home was demolished that day. “The situation is very upsetting. We asked to get our property before the demolition, but they refused. Some people were shot. Many were beaten and arrested. My husband was beaten repeatedly with a stick by the police while in jail.”
Yehun, a 20-year-old farmer from the town, said the community was given no warning about the demolitions. “I didn’t even have time to change my clothes,” he said sheepishly. Yehun and his family walked twenty kilometers barefoot to Sendafa, where his extended family could take them in.
The Price of Resistance
Opponents of the plan have been met with fierce repression.
“The Integrated Master Plan is a threat to Oromia as a nation and as a people,” Fasil stated, leaning forward in a scuffed hotel armchair. Reading from notes scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper, the hardened student activist continued: “The plan would take away territory from Oromia,” depriving the region of tax revenue and political representation, “and is a cultural threat to the Oromo people living there.”
A small scar above his eye, deafness in one ear and a lingering gastrointestinal disease picked up in prison testify to Fasil’s commitment to the cause. His injuries come courtesy of the police brutality he encountered during the four-year prison sentence he served after he was arrested for protesting for Oromo rights in high school and, more recently, against the IMP at Addis Ababa University.
Fasil is just one of the estimated thousands of students who were detained during university protests against the IMP. Though Fasil was beaten, electrocuted and harassed while he was imprisoned last May, he considers himself lucky. “We know that sixty-two students were killed and 125 are still missing,” he confided in a low voice.
The students ground their protests in Ethiopia’s federal Constitution. “We are merely asking that the government abide by the Constitution,” Fasil explained, arguing that the plan violates at least eight constitutional provisions. In particular, the students claim that the plan violates Article 49(5), which protects “the special interest of the State of Oromia in Addis Ababa” and gives the district the right to resist federal incursions into “administrative matters.”
Moreover, the plan presents a tangible threat to the people living in Oromia. Fasil and other student protesters claimed that the IMP “would allow the city to expand to a size that would completely cut off West Oromia from East Oromia.” When the plan is fully implemented, an estimated 2 million farmers will be displaced. “These farmers will have no other opportunities,” Fasil told me. “We have seen this before when the city grew. When they lose their land, the farmers will become day laborers or beggars.”
Winners and Losers
The controversy highlights the disruptive and often violent processes that can accompany economic growth. “What is development, after all?” Fasil asked me.
Ethiopia’s growth statistics are some of the most impressive in the region. Backed by aid from the US government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the country’s ruling coalition, is committed to modernizing agricultural production and upgrading the country’s economy. Yet there is a lack of consensus about which processes should be considered developmental.
Oromo activists allege that their community has borne a disproportionate share of the costs of development. Advocates like Fasil argue that the “development” programs of the EPRDF are simply a means of marginalizing the Oromo people to consolidate political power within the ruling coalition.
“Ethiopia has a federalism based on identity and language,” explained an Ethiopian political science professor who works on human rights. Nine distinct regions are divided along ethnic lines and are theoretically granted significant autonomy from the central government under the 1994 Constitution. In practice, however, the regions are highly dependent on the central government for revenue transfers and food security, development and health programs. Since the inception of Ethiopia’s ethno-regional federalism, the Oromo have been resistant to incorporation in the broader Ethiopian state and suspicious of the intentions of the Tigray ethnic group, which dominates the EPRDF.
As the 2015 elections approach, the Integrated Master Plan may provide a significant source of political mobilization. “The IMP is part of a broader conflict in Ethiopia over identity, power and political freedoms,” said the professor, who requested anonymity.
Standing in Gullele Botanic Park in May, Secretary of State Kerry was effusive about the partnership between the United States and Ethiopia, praising the Ethiopian government’s “terrific support in efforts not just with our development challenges and the challenges of Ethiopia itself, but also…the challenges of leadership on the continent and beyond.”
Kerry’s rhetoric is matched by a significant amount of US financial support. In 2013, Washington allocated more than $619 million in foreign assistance to Ethiopia, making it one of the largest recipients of US aid on the continent. According to USAID, Ethiopia is “the linchpin to stability in the Horn of Africa and the Global War on Terrorism.”
Kerry asserted that “the United States could be a vital catalyst in this continent’s continued transformation.” Yet if “transformation” entails land seizures, home demolitions and political repression, then it’s worth questioning just what kind of development American taxpayers are subsidizing.
The American people must wrestle with the implications of “development assistance” programs and the thin line between modernization and marginalization in countries like Ethiopia. Though the US government has occasionally expressed concern about the oppressive tendencies of the Ethiopian regime, few demands for reform have accompanied aid.
For the EPRDF, the process of expanding Addis Ababa is integral to the modernization of Ethiopia and the opportunities inherent to development. For the Oromo people, the Integrated Master Plan is a political and cultural threat. For the residents of Legetafo, the demolition of their homes demonstrates the uncertainty of life in a rapidly changing country.
Oromia: Enhanced Master Plan to Continue Committing the Crimes of Genocide
The actions taken were aimed at destroying Oromo farmers or at rendering them extinct.
~Ermias Legesse, Ethiopia’s exiled EPRDF Minister
The announcement of the implementation of the Addis Abababa Master Plan (AAMP) was just an extension of an attempt by EPRDF government at legalizing its plans of ridding the Oromo people from in and around Finfinne by grabbing Oromo land for its party leaders and real estate developers from the Tigrean community. The act of destroying Oromo farmers by taking away their only means of survival—the land—precedes the current master plan by decades. Ermias Legesse, exiled EPRDF Deputy Minister of Communication Affairs, acknowledged his own complicity in the destruction of 150,000 Oromo farmers in the Oromia region immediately adjacent to Finfinne. He testifies that high-level TPLF/EPRDF officials are responsible for planning and coordinating massive land-grab campaigns without any consideration of the people atop the land. Ermia’s testimony is important because it contains both the actus reus and dolus specials of the mass evictions:
Once while in a meeting in 1998 (2006, Gregorian),the Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi , we (ERPDF wings) used to go to his office every week, said. Meles led the general party work in Addis Ababa. We went to his office to set the direction/goal for the year. When a question about how should we continue leading was asked, Meles said something that many people may not believe. ‘Whether we like it or not nationality agenda is dead in Addis Ababa.’ He spoke this word for word. ‘A nationality question in Addis Ababa is the a minority agenda.’ If anyone were to be held accountable for the crimes, everyone of us have a share in it according to our ranks, but mainly Abay Tsehaye is responsible. The actions taken were aimed at destroying Oromo farmers or at rendering them extinct. 29 rural counties were destroyed in this way. In each county there are more or less about 1000 families. About 5000 people live in each Kebele (ganda) and if you multiply 5000 by 30, then the whereabouts of 150,000 farmers is unknown.
Zenawi’s statement “the question of nationality is a dead agenda in Addis Ababa” implies that the Prime Minister planned the genocide of the Oromo in and around Finfinne and others EPRDF officials followed suit with the plan in a more aggressive and formal fashion.
Announcement of the Addis Ababa Master Plan and Massacres and Mass Detentions
AAMP was secretly in the making for at least three years before its official announcement in April 2014. The government promoted on local semi-independent and state controlled media the sinister plan that already evicted 2 million Oromo farmers and aims at evicting 8-10 million and at dividing Oromia into east and west Oromia as a benevolent development plan meant to extend social and economic services to surrounding Oromia’s towns and rural districts. Notwithstanding the logical contradiction of claiming to connect Oromia towns and rural aanaalee (districts) to “economic and social” benefits by depopulating the area itself, the plan was met with strong peaceful opposition across universities, schools and high schools in Oromia. Starting with the Ambo massacre that claimed the lives of 47 people in one day, Ethiopia’s army and police killed over 200 Oromo students, jailed over 2000 students, maimed and disappeared countless others over a five-month period from April-August 2014.
The protests were sparked by the realization that the plan would compromise not only the territorial integrity of Oromia by dividing Oromia into two administrative regions and by forcefully separating Oromo from one another by settling aliens on depopulated lands, but also by facilitating large-scale evictions that would result in genocide and slavery.
I will provide a brief context to the plan and what it means in terms of dividing Oromia into the east and the west and in terms of weakening and preparing the Oromo for genocidal occupation by Tigirean power. The real intent of the plan—destroying Oromo people in whole or in part—is hidden under false narratives of “service provision” and “urban development”.
Not only did the Oromo not consent to the plan, but the plan is also unconstitutional on multiple levels. First, the expansion and the evictions violate the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution’s Article 49 (5), which provides: ” The special interest of Oromia in Addis Ababa shall be respected in the provision of social services, the utilization of natural resources and in joint administrative matters arising from the location of Addis Ababa within Oromia State. The law shall specify the particulars.” In spite of the provision, the special interest of Oromia was never respected and no law was passed to determine the particulars over the last 23 years. Oromos have been cheated out of their constitutional right by a manipulative minority in power. In fact, the ERPDF regime has denied Oromia the benefit of having Finfinnee as a capital city and kicked the OPDO administration in and out of it at whim to weaken the political influence of the Oromo in the nation’s and the region’s capital.
Second, surpassing the protection of Oromia’s special interest, the EPRDF has committed another constitutional violation and attempted to destroy the territorial integrity of Oromia by planning to split it into two halves and inserting settler occupation in the middle–all in order to grab land and shrink the geo-political size of Oromia. In Article 39 (1), the EPRDF constitution says: “Every nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia have an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” By splitting Oromia into two halves—west and east—the EPRDF imposes decisions of Tigrean elites on the Oromo without their consent and unconstitutionally violates the Oromo people’s right to self-determination in Oromia. On the bleakest side, the plan intends to destroy the lives of millions of Oromo farmers and town dwellers in the area as declared by the Prime Minster when he said the “nationality agenda is dead in Addis Ababa.” Of course, one cannot kill a collectivity’s agenda without killing them as threatened.
The plan and its implementation has already evicted a significant portion of the Oromo population, has brought a significant amount of Oromo land under EPRDF elite control, and has altered the demographic composition of Oromia. The plan is explicit about the regime’s intentions to incorporate over 6 Oromia’s cities and 8 rural aanaalee(counties) in the vicinity of Finfinnee into Fininne against the will of the Oromo people. Sululta, Bishoftu, Sabata Dukem, Holeta and Ambo are among the cities planned to be gobbled up by Addis Ababa. Regime authorities estimated that Finfinne, which currently sits on 54,000 hectares of Oromo land obtained through 19th and 20th century crimes of genocide, now wants to gain 1.1 million hectares of land from Oromia by the same criminal method—genocide.
The Oromo responses to this enormous project of extermination, which resembles Hitler’s “final solution”, have been equally enormous. Oromian students from primary schools to tertiary education demonstrated in thousands and protested the implementation of the plan and expressed that the plan benefits the Tigrean elites while destroying the Oromo people. The loss of ancestral land accompanied by the loss of culture and identity binding the Oromo nation have been among concerns expressed by protesters as well as opposition party leaders. The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) condemned the AAMP as follows:
In the countryside, Oromo farmers are being evicted from their plots of land without compensation and without any employment guarantee. In cities, the houses and properties of [Oromo] persons are being demolished and the owners are rendered propertyless and sanctioned to perpetual poverty. In contrast, it is seen that individual supporters of the regime (EPRDF/TPLF) are amassing wealth upon wealth by acquiring land in urban and rural areas using their connections, relatives and group memberships to get 30-40 land maps and then trading in those maps to generate profit.
The rate and conditions under which Oromo farmers are evicted and exposed to poverty-stricken and diseases-infested calculated life conditions that will cause their demise is clear. Other consequences of the master plan that have already been witnessed have to do with the loss of language, culture and identity given that Abyssinian language, Amharic, and northern Ethiopian cultures have been violently imposed in the area systematically. OFC provides evidence supporting this all-rounded genocide:
It is not only land that is going to be taken from the people [the Oromo], it is also the right to speak and learn his own language [Afan Oromo], the right to be judged in courts in his own language, the right to develop one’s own culture…all of these will be gone. As a result, the harm that will be inflicted on the region [Oromia], on the people [Oromo], and the farmers around these areas will be very heavy [difficult].
Evicting farmers because of membership in a group is an internationally recognized crime of genocide under the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide Article II (A-E). The land grab in Oromia, which has had genocidal characteristics, started in the last quarter of the 19th century and it is ongoing. While crimes listed under the UNGC are being committed against the Oromo people on a daily basis, including “killing members of the group,” (Art 2(A) and “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” (Art II (B), a provision that is specially applicable to the mass eviction and impoverishing of Oromo famers is UNGC Article II (C) “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
Under the Derg and the EPRDF governments from 1990 to mid 2000s, a total of 27,000 Oromo civilians of 200,000 captured and returned from Somalia were killed and buried in 10 different mass graves. The skeletons were accidentally unearthed during a “government-sponsored construction work.” The discovery reveals “one of the most gruesome mass murders” committed against people of Oromo nationality in one of several Ethiopia’s military camps used as concentration camps simultaneously. General Getachew Gedamu, Derg military commander and Smura Yunus, army chief of staff and commander of TPLF army’s eastern command, were in charge of gruesome killings described below:
..they began angrily executing high profile prisoners during the day. When the night fell, the brought five bulldozers from the city and dug up huge holes outside the compound at the place called Sharif Kalid. First they loaded up bodies of those killed during the day. Then tied up the remaining prisoners and told them to line up facing the holes. They fired on them from behind. Many of the victims were thrown in alive. The bulldozers put back the soil on the top [covered them with soil].
Local residents shocked by the skeletons they saw during the digging staged a three-day protest. The government fired on the protesters demanding dignity for the remains of their loved ones and injured a few. Activists have issued statements asserting that what was revealed at the Hamaressa mass graves were the tip of the iceberg since EPRDF government-run military camps where people vanish are too many.
Western/Eastern funders of the Ethiopian government’s project of dislocation and massacre in Oromia have been gagged by official government rhetoric about development. The only voice denouncing the AAMP is that of Oromo students and it has been systematically silenced over the last 5 months (April-August, 2014). Students were killed, maimed and suspended from universities in droves across Oromia and state officials and their foot soldiers who carried out the massacres still enjoy impunity, promotion and pay increase per the kill they register with the government.
A second round of mass detentions, maiming and selective killings restarted this August following the refusal of Oromo students to accept the regime’s plan to indoctrinate and pacify them. The students are put in a difficult position of accepting or agreeing with the crimes perpetrated on them by Ethiopian security forces, police and soldiers. The penalty to refuse to accept own death in the hands of the state ranges from mass expulsion from universities, selective detentions of those who demanded accountability and justice, and killings of outstanding activists.
There seem to be no real strategies and tactics on part of the Oromo political groups in ensuring the safety of Oromo students and in answering the national questions they have raised. Diaspora peaceful rallies and social media campaigns wax and wane with each passing day as volunteers experience burnouts and drop out due to over-extended time and the lack of relentless institutionalized leadership.
 These numbers are conservative estimates by an insider to the ruling party. Other people estimate that over 2 million people were evicted before the plan came into existence.
 Ermias Legesse, “How More than 150,000 Oromo Farmers Were Evicted from 29 Oromia counties surrounding Addis Ababa [Finfinnee]. 2014 ESAT television interview. Retrieved May 2014 from, http://youtu.be/W0T5ajOk3l4 The interview was translated from the Amharic original into English by the current author. Ermias’ estimates are the most conservative as he was involved with the regime and he might not have wished to reveal the whole truth. After the official implementation that followed the unwritten implementation many years before, it’s projected that 8-10 million Oromo farmers and residents in neighboring rural counties and small towns will be affected by the seismic activities of the Tigirean government policy of selectively removing the Oromo people from their ancestral land calculated to subject them to life conditions that will bring about their slow-motion demise.
 1994 Ethiopian Constitution
 Finfinnee is the indigenous Oromo name for Addis Ababa. Finfinnee was renamed Addis Ababa after Menelik’s 19th century genocide campaigns wiped out several Oromo ethnic groups and clans from the land on which Finfinne was built as a garrison city for Amhara armed settlers, naftagna.
 Ambo massacre http://oromopress.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-ambo-masscare-tplf-military-kills.html
 Gadaa.(2014, April). “Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) Sounds Alarm about the Ongoing Land-Grab in Oromia; Condemns the Ethiopian Govt’s Land Policy Being Enforced in Oromia Without Oromo’s Participation as Plan to Ignite Violence between Oromo Farmers and Investors.” Gadaa.com. Retrieved April 16, 2014 from
This is a news item from Gadaa.com based on the statement by OFC. Quoted translation of parts of the statement from Afan Oromo into English is by the current author.
 “His” is possessive for the Oromo people. The noun “Oromo” is masculine- gendered in Afan Oromo grammar.
 UN. 1948. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Retrieved April 16, 2014 from https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%2078/volume-78-I-1021-English.pdf
 Emphasis added.
 Gulele Post. “Hamaressa Mass Grave: Background. http://www.gulelepost.com/2014/06/11/hameressa-mass-grave-background/
 Amy van Steenwyk, 2014.http://amyvansteenwyk.tumblr.com/post/88451067229/reservations-and-mass-graves-in-minnesota-and-oromia
 See footnote number 12.
Ethiopian mother angry over murdered son
The Advocacy for Oromia expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the MH17 plane disaster. We are so sorry to hear such tragedy. Tragedies like this have a devastating affect on both the global community and local communities – our thoughts are with everyone touched by these events, in Victoria, all over Australia and overseas, at this difficult time.
“ I think they were killing people on purpose” Yeshi, mother of man shot dead in April in Ambo. “Yeshi” is still trying to come to terms with the trauma of discovering the body of her son being carried through the streets of the Ethiopian city of Ambo.
A 27-year-old rickshaw driver, he had been caught up in deadly protests between the police and students in the city in April.
They were demonstrating about plans to extend the administrative control of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia state.
Oromia is the country’s largest region and completely surrounds Addis Ababa – and some people feared they would be forced off their land and lose their regional and cultural identity if the plans went ahead.
The government says the “Masterplan”, as it is known, would allow them to better extend city services to rural areas.
However for Yeshi – who asked for her name and those of her family to be changed – the heavy-handed response by the security forces that saw her son shot in the head is hard to fathom.
She had come across a group of people carrying a body and overheard people saying it was her son, Tamiru.
Unable to recognise his features as they were too disfigured, she identified him by his “clothes and shoes”.
“I think they were killing people on purpose,” she told the BBC, saying that Tamiru was not directly involved in any trouble that day.
Five other young people were also killed with bullet wounds to the head, she says.
One of her other surviving sons, Ibsa, said he was unable to believe that his brother was dead and asked for the coffin to be opened.
“His head was blackened and torn apart. The bullet had gone through his temple. You couldn’t identify him by his face but I recognised his body,” he said.
“He was a very good boy, level-headed. He did well in his studies. Nobody has a bad word to say about him… But what good is that now?”
Three months later it was a very different atmosphere in Ambo, which is about 125km (77 miles) west of the capital and was the focal point of the protests.
When the BBC team visited, it was in the middle of the graduation season and the area around the university was full of graduates in their gowns and caps ahead of their big ceremony.
Students were posing for photographs with armfuls of red roses wrapped in cellophane and the mood was one of celebration.
Yet this was the same place – the main entrance to Ambo University – where witnesses say the protesters and police clashed in April.
The government says that 17 lives were lost in the violence. Opposition, human rights groups and some eyewitnesses say the figure is much higher.
Ethiopia’s Information Minister Redwan Hussein old the BBC the dead included five students and 12 civilians and strongly denies that the government was responsible for any of the violence.
The protest was hijacked by “rabble rousers” with a political agenda – “hell-bent on raising havoc”, he said.
“They were shooting, they had guns – ammunitions,” Mr Redwan said.
“They were attacking and fighting so it was not through the government shooting, or the police shooting that people died.”
He dismissed accusations from international human rights organisations that police and government security forces shot at unarmed protesters.
“Whatever they said was not actually founded on facts.”
The students, the minister added, had a right to ask questions about the “Masterplan” and that the government was “ready to discuss” it with them.
Mathewos Asfaw, general manager of the “Masterplan”, told the BBC that the demonstrators had completely misunderstood the project and that no-one would be forced off their land.
“The plan doesn’t have a single concept or idea of expansion, because it’s not possible to expand the city of Addis beyond the current boundary and jurisdiction.”
Ethiopia is no stranger to accusations of intolerance when dealing with its critics and opposition groups.
The UN Human Rights Council recently recommended that the country improve on its media freedom and pay more attention to human rights.
Mr Redwan says he has “no objection” to the recommendations as they are already “being implemented”.
This is no consolation for Yeshi, who remains dressed in traditional mourning clothes.
“I’m very sad – until now I’m not right in the head. I’m walking around like a zombie. I’m not OK.”