It is happening again, sadly. The government in Ethiopia is back to its signature of killing, maiming and jailing its own people because they are exercising their chance of rejecting state excesses using the only means available: taking to the streets to protest.
Ethiopia is a country that has effectively obliterated several channels that normally help foster a healthy communication between citizens and the state .The sorry state of independent media and civil society organization is distressing; and every day lived experienced of Ethiopians and their contacts with authorities at any level is alarmingly toxic.
Authorities in Ethiopia should have therefore been the last ones to get started by the idea of citizens taking to the streets to make their grievances heard. Alas, that is not to be.
Hundreds and thousands of students and residents in more than 100 cities and towns in Oromiya Regional State (Oromiya for short), the largest and most populous state in Ethiopia, are in and out of the streets since early Nov. last year. Like every experience when Ethiopians were out on the streets protesting state excesses, every day is bringing heart breaking stories of Ethiopians suffering in the hands of security personnel. Since Nov.12th 2015, when the first protest broke out in Ginchi, a small town 80km west of Addis Abeba, countless households have buried their loved ones; young university students have disappeared without a trace; hundreds have lost limbs and countless others are jailed
Ethiopians are once again killing, miming and jailing Ethiopians.
The immediate trigger factor is the possible implementation of the infamous Addis Abeba and Surrounding Oromiya Special Zone Integrated Development Plan, popularly known as ‘the Addis Abeba Master Plan.’
The federal government claims it is a plan aimed at only creating a better infrastructure link between the capital Addis Abeba and eight towns located within the Oromiya Regional State Special Zone. But the reason why it is having a hard time selling this otherwise fairytale like development plan is the same reason why it is responding heavy handedly to any dissent against it: it is what it wants to do.
The current protest is led by the Oromos, who are the largest ethnic majority in Ethiopia. In all the four corners of the Addis Abeba surrounding localities, Oromos also make up the single largest majority whose way of lives have already been affected by mammoth changes Addis Abeba has been having over the last Century.
They are rejecting the central government’s top down plan because they are informed by a merciless history of eviction and dispossession. Several researches show that over the last 25 years alone about half a million Oromo farmers have unjustly lost their farmlands to give way to an expansion of a city that is xenophobic to their way to being.
Not the first time
Sadly, this is not the first time Ethiopians are pleading with their government to be heard in regards to the so-called ‘Master Plan.’ The first protest erupted in April-May 2014 when mostly Oromo student protesters from universities in Ambo and Jimma in the west, Adama in the east and Medaawalabu in south east Ethiopia, among others, expressed their disapproval of the plan. Like today, they have resorted to communicate with authorities the only way they possibly can: take to the streets to protest. And like today authorities have responded the only way they have so far responded to Ethiopian voices calling for justice: killing tens, maiming hundreds and incarcerating thousands.
As of 1991, when the current regime first came to power, students, mostly Oromo students, have staged several protest rallies calling for justice. Each time the end result has been nothing short of a disaster.
Although the 2014 Oromo students protest marked the first of the largest protest against the central government, a not so distant memory of Oromo students’ protests and subsequent crackdowns reveal a disturbing history of state brutality gone with impunity. To mention just two, in late ‘90s Oromo Students at the Addis Abeba University (AAU) protested against a systematic expulsion of hundreds of Oromo students, who, authorities claimed, had links with the then rebel group, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). But many of those who protested against the dismissal of their dorm mates soon joined the growing list of expulsion; hundreds of were also jailed. Today mothers speak of their kids who have disappeared without a trace since then. And in early 2000 Oromo students have taken to the streets to protest against the federal government’s decision to relocate the capital of the Oromiya regional state from Addis Abeba to Adama. Many of them were killed when police opened fires in several of those protests, including the one here in Addis Abeba.
Although in 2005 the federal government decided to relocate the capital of Oromiya back to Addis Abeba, fifteen years later Ethiopian prisons are hosting hundreds of students who were jailed following their protest against the decision in the first place; hundreds of them have left the country via Kenya and have become homeless in foreign lands. Less mentioned are also the lives that have been altered forever; the hopes that were dashed; the students’ quest to study and change their lives that were cut short; a country that is deprived of its young and brightest; and family fabrics that were shattered.
State impunity and all that
Following the 2014 Oromo students’ protest and the killing spree by the federal and the regional state police, Abadula Gemeda, speaker of the house of people’s representatives and former president of the Oromiya regional state, promised to bring to justice those who were responsible for the killing.
But two outstanding experiences explain why Abadula’s words were mere rhetoric. And the government in Ethiopia should address both if it wants to remain a legitimate representative of the people it claims to govern.
First, so far no one who represents the government has been held accountable for the killings, maiming, disappearances and unjust incarceration for countless Ethiopians following protest crackdowns. No matter how excessive the use of force by its security agents against unarmed protesters is, the government knows (and acts as such) it can simply get away with it, as it did several times in the past. This is wrong. A state that has no mechanism to hold its rogue agents accountable for their excesses is equally guilty.
In addition to that, in what came as a disturbing twist, the government has adopted a new strategy aimed at portraying itself as a victim of public vandalism. It is rushing to clean itself of the crimes committed by its security agents. Using its disproportionate access to state owned and affiliated media currently the government is presiding over the stories of victimhood more than those whose lives have been destroyed by it. In an act of shame and disgrace to the profession, these state owned and affiliated media are providing their helping hands to complete the act of state impunity.
Second, the central government’s first answer to the repeated cries of justice by Ethiopians is to communicate with them through its army. Like in the past, in the ongoing protests by the Oromo, which have largely focused on cities and towns within the Oromiya regional state, protesters are not only facing the regional state’s security apparatus but also the merciless hands of the federal army reserve. This is an act that not only trespasses the country’s constitutionally guaranteed federal arrangement but also makes the horrific crimes committed by necrophiliac security agents against protesters to get lost in unnecessary details, hence go unpunished.
Public protests in the past and the manner by which the current government dealt with them should teach the later a lesson or two. But the first and most urgent one is that it should stop killing, maiming and jailing its people’s questions.
In addition to the unknown numbers of those who have been killed by the police and the army in the wake of the ongoing protest, cities have seen their hospitals crowded with wounded Ethiopians of all ages; hundreds of individuals, including senior members of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), are already thrown into jails without due legal process. In clear violation of the constitution by none other than the state most of them are held incommunicado in places unknown to their loved ones.
In the wake of his release after serving four years in prison, Bekele Gerba, the prominent opposition figure, told this magazine in April last year that prison was “not a place one appreciates to be, but I think it is also the other way of life as an Ethiopian.” Sadly, Bekele is once again thrown in to jail because that is Ethiopia does to its people’s questions. But an end to this is long overdue.
ED’s Note: an erroneous version of this editorial was posted on the web earlier. The editor apologizes for any inconvenience that may have caused our readers. This editorial was first published in the hard copy of the January 2016 edition of Addis Standard.