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Oromo Activists Fight US-Backed Land Seizures

Oromo ethnic group

Ethiopians of the Oromo ethnic group stage a protest against the ruling government. (Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi)

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.

American Support

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.

Source: http://www.thenation.com/blog/181599/ethiopian-activists-fight-us-backed-land-seizures

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IN CHOOSING SECURITY OVER DEMOCRACY IN ETHIOPIA, U.S. WILL GET NEITHER

Kerry misses chance to press Addis Ababa on political liberalization

oromo student

Oromo student injured by police during a peaceful rally held at Wollega University, Ethiopia on April 27.  qeerroo.org

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Thursday in the first leg of his three-nation trip to Africa “to encourage democratic development.” He came to a country rocked by mountingstudent protests against the government and vicious military crackdowns that left scores dead and wounded, as well as the troubling imprisonment of dissident journalists and bloggers.

To his credit, Kerry raised concerns about the tightening of press freedom in Ethiopia. “I made clear to Ethiopian officials that they need to create greater opportunities for citizens to be able to engage with their fellow citizens and with their government by opening up more space for civil society,” Kerry told reporters in Addis Ababa.

However, his discussions with Ethiopia’s leaders were overshadowed bySouth Sudan’s implosion — with continuing fragility in next-door Somalia, and souring Egypt-Ethiopia relations stirred by Ethiopia’s construction of the Great Renaissance Dam over the Nile, in the background.

This focus was unfortunate but hardly surprising. For over two decades, despite fleeting statements expressing “concern,” Washington has shied away from seriously engaging Ethiopian authorities on the need for genuine democratization. Without the latter, the country’s extended prosperity is in danger. “To support economic growth for the long term, the free marketplace of ideas matters just as much as free markets,” Kerry noted in his remarks. But he failed to underscore how rising instability could erode Ethiopia’s standing as a linchpin to the otherwise volatile Horn of Africa region’s stability and damage its newly minted image as an emerging economic powerhouse.

Growing dissent

Reports of the number of dead vary, but in clashes with security forces over the last few days, locals say at least 20 protesters have been killed and many others wounded in Ambo and Robe towns. The government acknowledged 11 deaths, adding at least 70 students were wounded in a bomb blast at Haramaya University in Eastern Oromia.Swedish and U.K. embassies in Addis Ababa updated travel warnings for their nationals urging those in Ethiopia to avoid visiting the area.

Ethnic Oromo students are protesting against a new urban development plan unveiled in April by the Addis Ababa city administration. Protesters say the city’s master plan, devised by ruling party functionaries without public input, would allow the sprawling metropolis to swallow up surrounding Oromo towns and rural villages.

Protesters fear the new plan would facilitate the eviction of thousands of farmers from their ancestral lands without proper compensation — an unjust process that has been happening since the city’s founding a century ago. Their land would be sold at dirt-cheap prices to foreign and domestic investors, exacerbating the country’s growing income inequality and diluting the Oromo national identity. In addition, the plan would condemn the Oromo, Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group, to being an agrarian population in a fast-urbanizing country and balkanize their homeland into an eastern and western half — in a manner reminiscent of occupied Palestinian territories — leaving the state of Oromia with only nominal control.

The ongoing protests and crackdown on freedom of expression are the latest signs of growing discontent and Addis Ababa’s increasing authoritarianism. The U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, released by Kerry on Feb. 27, details Ethiopia’s worsening human rights situation. In recent years, the country’s adoption of a spate of draconian laws, including its Charities and Societies Proclamation and Anti-Terrorism Law, has given security and intelligence forces and the vengeful judiciary carte blanche to criminalize all forms of dissent and to arrest opposition leaders.

While the student protests have so far been confined to college campuses, they echo a long-simmering popular grievance. The Oromo make up close to 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 94 million, but are conspicuously marginalized in that country’s political, economic and social life. The government’s refusal to address their complaints is a major bottleneck on the country’s democratization.

The limits on free speech, the violent suppression of protesters and imprisonment of political leaders and bloggers portend ill for the future of Washington’s ally Ethiopia. 

The Oromo student protests are not new. Since 2001, sporadic student-led riots have rattled the state — the most potent being in 2006 following botched 2005 elections. The ire of past protests has been mainly against the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the junior partner in the ruling Ethiopian Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF). This time around, the rank and file of the OPDO seems to have resigned itself to the inevitability of protests by going public with its disapproval of the master plan. This has forced the party’s top echelon to scramble, mostly in vain, to downplay the plan’s shortcomings and tout its envisaged benefits. Far from reassuring, their comments fueled more protests and emboldened those agitating for an outright rejection of the ruling party’s 22-year-old rule.

The state-run media have also shown some murmur of dissent. In a rare sign of independence, the regional TV Oromiya aired comments critical of the plan in April. Unlike protesters of years past, who universally rejected the legitimacy of the Ethiopian state, today’s students are calling for perfecting the union — by designating Oromo as one of Ethiopia’s official federal languages; judiciously implementing the country’s 1994 constitution, which crafted nine states on the basis of linguistic criteria; and releasing all political prisoners. The students’ moderation notwithstanding, security forces have characteristically responded by using disproportionate force.

Since the death in 2012 of the country’s mercurial Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled with an iron fist, the EPRDF has been struggling to maintain its hallmark of internal cohesion. Party discipline was severely strained during the murky transition as well as the two-year-long sit-ins by the country’s restive Muslim population. The ongoing violent crackdown on peaceful protesters — who include rank-and-file members of the OPDO, which constitutes 5 million out of the ruling party’s 7 million members — is bound to test the EPRDF’s unholy alliance.

Ethiopia’s current political dispensation as a nominal ethnic federation overseen by the overlordship of the powerful Tigrean ethnic elite is severely contested. While the Oromo are pressing for making the federation more meaningful, ethnic Amhara elites, Ethiopia’s traditional rulers, are calling for the dismantling of the country’s ethnic federalism — likening it to a ticking time bomb threatening Ethiopia’s unity and territorial integrity.

Untenable status quo

The limits on free speech, the violent suppression of protesters and imprisonment of political leaders and bloggers portend ill for the future of Washington’s loyal ally. Kerry’s restrained nudging did not appear to have swayed Addis Ababa toward political liberalization. Although U.S. leverage has clearly waned in recent years, Kerry should have used his visit’s huge moral weight. As a high-ranking member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, he was a fierce advocate for democracy and human rights. His strong support for Ukrainian protesters in their recent standoff with former President Viktor Yakunovych, however, contrasts with his decision to side with the military in hijacking the Egyptian revolution, which had briefly stoked high hopes for regional democratic transformation.

Security forces may temporarily silence the current student uprisings in Oromia and contain rising indications of potentially catastrophic urban disturbances ahead of the 2015 elections. But the status quo is untenable. Unless held in a free, fair and inclusive manner, in a marked departure from previous elections in which the ruling party claimed hollow victory thanks to its tight grip on all state institutions, the upcoming elections will no doubt mark a watershed moment for Ethiopia’s democratic transformation or its irreversible derailment.

To encourage democratic development, the professed aim of his trip, Kerry should have insisted that Addis Ababa embrace the growing chorus for liberalization. This includes a firm statement calling for an end to the repression of peaceful protesters in Oromia and the opening of the political and press environment, both of which are now monopolized by the ruling party. Instead, the U.S. ultimately missed another opportunity to push for a peaceful and gradual transition to democracy in a region marked by tyranny and volatility.

Hassen Hussein is an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a longtime democracy activist and a leader of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.

http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/john-kerry-ethiopiaaddisababaoromostudentprotestspressfreedom.html