#OromoProtests Special coverage
J. Bonsa, PhD
The most commonly held rallying cry of the ongoing Oromo protestin Ethiopia is “Say No to the Master Plan!” There is a consensus among the protesters and the general public that the “Master Plan”, named by some campaigners as the “Master Killer”, has just served as a focal point that ignited the widespread discontent in a range of social, political and economic lives of the Oromo who finally went out en masse to express their outrage.
This piece is concerned with effective messaging of the protest. If framed wisely and clearly,messages and slogans can contribute to effective communication between the wider Oromo society in general and, most importantly, with the rest of the Ethiopian people and the international community.
It should be emphasized that the Oromo protest is a spontaneous outburst of rage among the Oromo youth and the general public at large, who had enough of the relentless and systematic oppression and dispossession by the current EPRDF led government in which the Oromo peopleare not genuinely and meaningfully represented. Since the protest is not centrally organized and coordinated, it is not surprising if the messages are not as sharp as they should.
The concerns and questions related to the ‘Master Plan’ can be classified into the following sets of issues and regulations: The ‘Master Plan’– The request to scrap the ‘Master Plan’, a technical document that specifies the expansion of Addis Abeba by 20 times its current size, albeit with the ominous prospect of dissecting Oromiya into two parts through a deliberate enlargement of Addis Abeba; and Evictions and Land Grab – This follows from (a) the enlargement of Addis Abeba will inevitably get accomplished by evicting hundreds of thousands of farmers and turning pristine farm lands into a massive urban development spaces; and (b) Urban Development Law– recently passed by Caffee Oromiya, which was rushed through as an urban development law with far reaching implications, essentially obliterating Oromiya’s right on its urban centers.
If we count slogans that appeared on placards carried at demonstrations in towns and villages of Oromiya as well as solidarity rallies organized by the Oromo diaspora, then perhaps more than 90% of the cases would refer to the ‘Master Plan’, that is in the sense of (a) above. We witness similar levels of frequent references on social media; for instance, profiles of activists on Facebook often appear with a familiar red-green colored two worded slogan, “Say NO”, a shorthand for “Say No to the Master Plan”. Matters related to land grab are also referred to during chants by protesters but with less frequency than “Say No” type slogans. As far as I am aware, the “urban development law” has received a very marginal attention during the protest rallies and related discourses.
There is an unintended consequence of heavy reference to the ‘Master Plan’ during opposition and solidarity rallies and expert discussions. The presence of the very word ‘Plan’ in ‘Master Plan’ seems to have hugely distorted the message. By definition, ‘plans’ are essentially futuristic. Therefore, any opposition to a planned activity can essentially (and easily) sound as if it is all about opposing something yet to take place. To complicate matters, even in latest press releases by Oromo political groups appear with phrases like “if implemented”; that is to say “if this Master Plan is going to be implemented”.
In rare cases when they report on Oromo protest, the western media often misrepresented Oromo protest as opposition to “development plan”, with negative connotation of portrayal as anti-economic development. The EPRDF ledgovernment has often projected this image portraying itself as pro-development and Oromo activists as obstacles againstits development plans. Even if Oromos put their cases in the best possible way, then I suspect the government would still devise ways to distort it and the Western Media would still be reluctant to provide fair coverage. Such that lack of focus in getting messages right have therefore immensely contributed to the distorted image of Oromo activism, specifically related to opposition to the ‘Master Plan’.
The excessive reference to the ‘Master Plan’ has already caused some misunderstandings and created obstacles to the ongoing Oromo uprising. For instance, government officials have reluctantly indicated their willingness for dialogue. Under pressure they have gone as far as announcing a closure of the Integrated Master Plan Project Office. The US government has provided a lip service to Oromo protest, effectively implying that “what happened is regrettable, but now that the government is willing to talk to you, stop protesting and start engaging with the authorities”. Sadly, the US government has yet again given the moral high ground to the government in Ethiopia, whose security forces have already killed more than 80 peaceful Oromo protesters, including a mother who tried to plead and protect her son.
In my view, what is required is simple and straightforward. The messages can get right by doing two things:
Prioritize:I propose prioritization the messages in the following order: oppositions againstthe general practice of land grab; the Oromiya urban development law; and the ‘Master Plan’ itself. Meanwhile references to the later have to be kept to the minimum. Land grab, the end result of the ‘Master Plan’, has to be brought up front and protesters have to be vocal in their opposition to the ill-designed and deceitful regulation rushed through Caffee Oromiya. References to the fuzzy, vague and broad “plan” have to be relegated to a third category. However, I believe it should still remain on the placards but with less frequency than it currently appears.
Balance: The message gets clearer if opposition to the ‘Master Plan’is unpacked and presented in its time dimension: past, present and future. So far, the misunderstanding emanates from the presence of the word ‘Plan’ in ‘Master Plan’, which gave totally wrong impressions that Oromos are protesting a plan that is not yet implemented. It is a known fact that this is not the spirit in which the Oromo protests have taken place. The fact of the matter is the ‘Addis Master Plan’ has already been implemented. The EPRDF government should therefore be accused and challenged not only for lack of public participation in the preparation of the ‘Master Plan’ but also for declaring a plan for City development activity which has already been substantially implemented without much say from the general public. This would mean reframing the message and challenging primarily the implemented component of the Addis Abeba Master Plan. In other words, the focus of the movement should shift from what is yet to happen to what has already happened. This will save the protest from being labeled as a protest led by “imagination” to opposition against incalculable damages and crimes already perpetrated on the Oromo people.
The whole purpose of this analysis is to assist with sharpening the messages and messaging in the ongoing Oromo protest. I will conclude by providing rough sketches of the nature of effective messages I would like to see in future rallies. Although I put “Land Grab” as a primary target for opposition, even this would need to be framed in such a way that the message to be conveyed is a great deal more focused and sharper. In the context of Oromiya, “We Oppose Land Grab” is not good enough. Instead“Lafaa Hattee Deebisi!” or “Return Stolen Properties!” sounds sharper. I will simply outline a few focal points, and leave the task of coining effective slogans out of them. (of course, that is if my concern is shared with others colleagues).
Compensation– peaceful protesters would need to put across messages that target proper compensation for millions of families that have already been evicted over the last two decades. The justification for this is clear and straightforward. Ill-compensated farmers have legitimate cases to legally hold the authorities accountable for their dispossessed properties. There is no such a thing as bygones are bygones in such matters. In this case, the target has to be proper compensations perhaps over a longer period of time. It is possible to imagine the kinds of settlement that can be reached.
This might include establishing an inquiry that will look into the elaborate scams surrounding property development deals, amount of money collected, and then institute public fund for special compensations that will regularly pay evicted farmers and reinstate their dignities as human beings. Inevitably, such compensation funds can be sustained through property taxes, which inin tern force those who unjustly acquired land to pay back in the long run. Such guarantees will save current owners from insecurity in the short term to medium term.
‘Master Plan’– The manner in which protesters oppose part of the ‘Master Plan’yet to be implemented would need to be reframed. The aspect related to inevitable future land grab will remain as in the current rally but it should not be allowed to overshadow other aspects. However, I think it is important to express opposition to the deceitful merger of Addis Abeba with surrounding Oromiya towns in the pretext of development. Peaceful protesters would need to vocally express their opposition to “merger”. The reason is clear; it violates the basic principles of federalism. Something like this would send a strong message: Development Plan Integrations, Yes!; City-Town Mergers, No!.It can never be a difficult task to elaborate the underlying reasons for such slogans. It will also remove the unfortunate image of sounding a protest against “development plans”. Holding this slogan is like hittingtwo birds with one stone – a protest against land grab, gerrymandering, and the urban development proclamation. It also gives confidence for others who plan to settle in Oromiya.