October 15, 2017
Let the Oromo Protests Continue
by Caala Ibsa Oromo
After the state of emergency, imposed on October 9, 2016, had tried to stifle it unsuccessfully, the Oromo mass protest of the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian regime has erupted again on October 11, 2017. It is obvious that earlier protests were triggered by the EPDRF/TPLF government’s human rights abuses—arrests, extra judicial killings, tortures, land grabs, and the expansion of the capital city (Addis Ababa/Finfinee) at the expense of the surrounding farm lands—and the ongoing aspirations of the Oromo people for genuine autonomy. The protests intensified between 2014 and 2016 when the regime tried to implement the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan and transferred extensive lands from small farmers to foreign and domestic investors. Government violent response to protesters’ peaceful demands led to widespread condemnation of the regime and its repressive policies throughout Oromia and other regions. The repressive crackdown of protests culminated at the Irreecha massacre of October 2, 2016.
In a desperate and tragic action, government security forces fired teargas and live ammunitions to multitudes of people gathered to celebrate the Irreecha festival on October 2, 2016. The bullets fired by security agents killed and wounded many people. TPLF-sponsored acts created havoc and led to a stumped and death of many more people. The Ethiopian government took no responsibility for these tragedies and the abusive actions of its security agents. Instead of authorizing independent and thorough investigation of the incident, government officials put out unconvincing and self-serving statements about the Irreecha massacre. Furthermore, closing the avenue for transparent investigation and refusing to redress the grievances of protesters, the EPRDF/TPLF regime announced a state of emergency that lasted for ten months.
But the state of emergency failed to restore TPLF system of control and economic domination. The protesters’ attack on the economic infrastructures and the government’s inability to protect investors’ assets had eroded confidence and led to the flight of capital after the violent crackdown. The economic disruptions caused by the 2014-16 protests have forced the government to admit some of its excesses, the corruption and, at least nominally, the need for administrative reforms. For example, some of the land transfers (grabs) were reversed or cancelled. Secondly, the protests clearly led to revision of GDP growth downwards, increased inflation, and the devaluation of currency. Thirdly, the protests caused limited internal debate and some signs of dissentions within the ranks of the ruling party, particularly among the Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO) members.
On the other hand, TPLF leaders still hope to hold onto power through their usual machination and deceit. They have announced some anti-corruption cases and charged a few middle level culprits. But so far, the anti-corruption campaign remains a joke as high ranking offenders are still untouched. While promising limited reforms, the EPRDF/TPLF regime also used the state of emergency to incarcerate thousands of youth, activists, journalists and opposition political leaders. It also used youth detention centers for political indoctrination to weaken the protests. But its most sinister tactic is the incitement of conflict between neighboring ethnic groups. The outbreak of conflict between the Oromo and the Somali is a case in-point where the TPLF deliberately authorized and supported the creation of a liyu (special) police of the Somali regional state to attack and terrorize the Oromo in the eastern region. A similar effort has also taken place in the southern part of Oromia.
Despite the various attempts, the TPLF tactics had miserably failed. Instead of weakening the spirit of the protest and intimidating the protesters, the state of emergency and mass detentions created opportunities for participants to take a much-needed respite to recuperate from protest fatigue, heal from their wounds, and to regroup and reassess their tactics. The detainees used the time and the space for networking and rededication. Those who were released from detention camps came out with greater commitment and better organizational skills to continue the protests. The utter failure of the EPRDF/TPLF repressive tactic is on full display immediately after and the end of the state of emergency in August. At the first anniversary of the Irrecha massacre, on October 1, 2017, the Oromo youth returned with more vigor and determination to protest the TPLF rule. While celebrating the Irreecha festival, they danced and sang protest songs with full display of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) flag, the symbol of their resistance. They continued the same protests a week later at the Malka Atete Irreecha celebration in Burayu, in the suburb of Finfinee (Addis Ababa). Beginning on October 11, 2017, the protests have now spread to other cities throughout Oromia. On October 11, 12 and 13, thousands of protesters have marched in Ambo, Borana, Dembi Dolo, Gedo, Gimbi, Guder, Hararge, Jimma, Naqamte, Robe, Shashamane, and Waliso. Obviously, the Oromo protests are back with renewed intensity. Unfortunately, TPLF violent approach is also alive. Although the protesters were peaceful, government forces have killed at least fifteen and wounded over thirty protesters within two days. Yet a violent response is unlikely to calm down the resistance.
What makes the renewed protests different are the shifting allegiance of the OPDO membership and the Oromia regional state police away from the TPLF regime towards the protest. Created by TPLF during the last days of the Derg regime, OPDO has remained an important tool of the Tigrayan political domination in Oromia for the last twenty-six years. But lately, some members of this group have shown growing sympathy towards the protesters, and a few top leaders—including Abba Dula Gemeda, the speaker Parliament, and Lemma Megersa, President of Oromia regional state—have expressed concerns about the excesses of the TPLF-dominated government. The Oromia police have also shown greater restraints during the last few days of protest.
These latest, rather limited but symbolic, signs of change within the OPDO ranks have signaled hope and imminent victory for the Oromo people. It is obvious that there are many young OPDO members who have joined the EPRDF/TPLF government for tactical reasons but who secretly remained loyal to the Oromo national movement. The actions of those who take huge personal risks and work to undermine the repressive regime from the inside are always commendable. These unsung heroines and heroes of change will be duly recognized in history when the time comes. The latest positive gestures towards the protest by a few high ranking OPDO members, including Lemma Megersa and Abba Dula Gemeda, are welcome. The latter’s intention to resign from his speakership of the Parliament is particularly an encouraging sign. But he should explain clearly why he is resigning from the speakership position and how he will defend the Oromo people while staying in the government. He should not, however, be allowed to use his resignation as a negotiating tool for personal image-making.
To avoid any complications in the delicate balance between the TPLF, the OPDO and the protesters, some Oromo activists are questioning the need for protest rallies at this moment. One of the best-known activists—Jawar Mohammed—has even went to the extent of halting the protests that started on October 11, 2017. He and his colleagues argue that the current protests could jeopardize the OPDO sympathy towards the protest and could provoke the TPLF to unleash its violent crackdown again and expose the protesters to heightened repression. They fear that the protests could also be hijacked by regime elements. A few even suggest that the latest protest rallies are encouraged by the TPLF leaders themselves to find an excuse to divide and weaken the Oromo camp. It is, however, surprising that the same activists had earlier encouraged more active engagements, including the closing of roads and burning of properties of TPLF officials, when the political situation was not much different from the present. For this reason, their new more cautious approach seems hypocritical and unconvincing.
Despite their fears, so far, the protesters seem well organized; they march peacefully, chant timely slogans and display signs of resistance. Although they were brutally attacked—some killed and wounded—in Shashamanne and Bokee on October 11, 2017, the protesters did not cause any damage. They have shown restraint and maturity in defending their rights in a legitimate manner. On the other hand, if they wanted to attack protesters, TPLF leaders do not need any excuse; nor do they need to encourage the protesters to come out to display OLF flag and condemn the regime they dominate. Although TPLF leaders have shown irrational behavior in the past, incitement of the Oromo to protest their regime would be the height of their insanity. It is unlikely they would do it. But it does not mean that they will not attempt to sabotage the protests and will not try to create confusion to weaken it. The protesters should be vigilant all the time.
One thing is crystal clear: the Oromo protest is back. The people have the right to gather and protest the violation of their rights, violence against their families, imprisonment of their leaders, eviction form their lands, and incitement of violence on their borders. OPDO members are encouraged to join the resistance movement—stand with the people they claim to represent—and Abba Dula Gemeda is welcome home, too. The Oromia Police have the obligation to defend the people; and the protesters should continue their marches pressuring the OPDO police to fulfill their obligations and to end the TPLF repressive rule. If the OPDO cling to the TPLF masters and continue to perform their dirty jobs, they will not escape the wrath of the protesters and the judgment of history. In the meantime, all Oromo, at home and in diaspora, should support the protests led by the Qeerroo and any other group that wants the Oromo people to succeed. The Diaspora-based critics and activists should also need to reassess their position. Instead of boosting the moral of the protesters and the unity of the of Oromo people, which are highly needed at the time, their insinuation that the protest is in danger of being hijacked by the enemy could spread suspicion and fear among the people. It may even inadvertently weaken the movement. Therefore, they should carefully weigh the consequences of their comments on social media and its impact on the unity of the Oromo people.
Let the protesters march in unity and the protests continue!