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The politics of the protests in Oromia state of Ethiopia

By Makonnen Tesfaye
Tigrai Online Nov. 5, 2019

Oromos demonstrate in support of Jawar Mohammed

Thausands of Oromos demonstrate in support of Jawar Mohammed after government tried to remove his security guards without informing him.

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The tragic death of 86 Ethiopians in the Regional State of Oromia following the protests of Oromo youth (Qeerroos) - sparked by the Government’s attempt to remove security cover from Jawar Mohammed (possibly endangering his life) - has been highly politicized both by the One-Nation politicians and the PM following the latter’s video message to the Country on 3 November 2019. Indeed the whole incident has raised a number of pertinent questions on the motive and nature of the protests in Oromia as well as on the ensuing politics and the trajectory of ethnic-targeting in the country.

1. What are the motives and who are behind the attempt to deny Jawar Mohammed security cover endangering his safety?

It is a no brainer that the attempt at denying Jawar Mohammed security cover followed the PM’s tirade against him and the Oromo Media Network (OMN) when he gave a speech in the House of Representatives the previous day; and that it was sanctioned by high level Federal security authorities. It would beggar belief if the PM was not privy to this given the place of Jawar’s politics in Oromia. What is unambiguously clear is that Jawar Mohammed’s stance on the future direction of federalism in Ethiopia and his opposition to the PM’s “EPRDF Merger” project and the setting up of the so-called “Ethiopian Prosperity Party” has proved too antagonistic and, perhaps, the “last straw” for the PM. Therefore, the temptation and attempt to please the One-Nation politicians by publically castigating him and the OMN; and by intimidating him (as a minimum), or if the push comes to shove, facilitating his “elimination” (as Jawar alluded in OMN interviews).

2. What happened during the Qeerroo protests in Oromia? Were they primarily against the PM and the ODP, or an Inter-Ethnic Conflict?

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The immediate consequence of the security incident was the rallying of the Oromo youth to support and safeguard Jawar Mohammed in Addis Ababa followed by massive protests, over several days and across Oromia, against the PM, the OPDO/ODP and the Oromia Regional Government as demonstrated by pro-Jawar rallies, road closures and protests against symbols of Government power and authority (e.g. the burning of the PM’s Medemer Book), which are typical forms and features of Qeerroo protests. The protests were primarily targeted at the OPDO/ODP and the Regional and Federal Government (in particular the PM), and the inter-ethnic conflict appeared a secondary, incidental or “collateral” consequence. Why is this explanation most plausible? First, it was a spontaneous protest targeted against the Government and the PM who were, more importantly perceived to be, the culprits by their action against Jawar Mohammed. Second, the main forms of the protests were road closure and attack on symbols of Government authority. Third, the data given by the PM (assuming it is correct and unbiased) on the victims’ nationalities, where 50 of the 86 killed were Oromo youth. If the incidents in Oromia were primarily inter-ethnic conflicts (and assuming the Regional Security was neutral), how could the vast majority of the victims were Oromos, and this in Oromia? Reason and the data suggest that the Oromo security forces were not neutral and could and should be responsible for the killings of most of the Oromo and Non-Oromo youth. The death of some of the 36 Non-Oromo youth/people could plausibly be secondary and incidental, or “collateral”. It is also true there appeared to be anecdotal evidence that some were victims for being Non-Oromo (mainly Amhara but include other nationalities, in particular Gamo people). To what extent Non-Oromos were targeted because of their nationality or for being “Counter-Protesters”, and whether Non-Oromos attacked the Qeerroos are open-ended questions that could only be answered satisfactorily by a neutral and credible investigation commission. More on this later.

Similarly, the religious dimension of the protests in Oromia appeared to be secondary, given that the Oromo youth are as many Christian as they are Moslems; and more importantly, given the immediate cause of the protest was against what the Oromo youth consider to be an attack on federalism that guarantees the equality of nationalities and religions, which should unite different nationalists as well as peoples of different faiths. The data on the religion of the victims suggests it is not skewed against a particular religion, where tragically 40 of the victims were Christians of all denominations, 34 Moslems and 12 of other faiths. Again, the extent of the religious dimension of the protests in Oromia can only be ascertained through a neutral and credible investigation commission. The One-Nation elites’ narrative that exclusively portrayed Christians and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church as the primary target and victims of the protests appeared not to be supported by the breakdown of the religion of the victims. Biased and selective condemnation of violence is wrong. What matters is that no person should be killed for his/her religion. Moreover, what must be asserted and underlined is that whatever the causes and nature of the protests, no human being should be subjected to such barbaric acts of violence from any quarter, that is whether it is Government led or not, Oromo or Non-Oromo, Christian or Moslem; and the consequences of the loss of lives and the atrocities must be condemned by all peace-loving people and that the culprits must be made to face justice.

3. What are the different political narratives, manifestations and consequences of the protests?

3.1 The PM is well known for ignoring and refusing to give public address on many cataclysmic incidents involving public protests, ethnic-targeted killings and massacres or security conflicts between Regions that result in millions of internally displaced people. Examples include the Gumuz Massacre, the Qemants Pogroms, the killings in the Afar Region and the internally displaced in Gedeo and Guji. As a “rule of the thumb” the PM unfortunately considers it tarnishing his political image as a national leader to address such tragedies. Could this change now that he is a Nobel Laurette with added responsibilities? This time though he had to address stakeholders in Oromia and the Country at large, though belatedly. His first reaction was to address his nominal Oromia constituency where he denied any responsibility, which is contrary to the statements from the Oromia President, Shimelis Abdissa (who appeared to take responsibility) and the Federal Police Commission (which hinted partial responsibility).  The reaction of the Qeerroos in Ambo and other cities in Oromia might suggest the PM has largely failed in his pacification endeavours. This is even after his “alleged confession” at a meeting with Oromo elders in Harar that in order to establish his Oromo nationalist credential that he, in his capacity as INSA security officer, leaked state secrets to the OLF during the period when the organisation was legally banned as “terrorist” by the previous EPRDF government, which risks the accusation of “treason”. If true this shows how politically desperate and vulnerable the PM has become following the Oromo protests.

In a Video Message to the Country on 3 November 2019, the PM tried to portray the protests in Oromia as primarily inter-ethnic conflict.  To support this he gave the breakdown of the nationality, religion and gender of the victims (which is controversial to say the least). This is with a view to, firstly,  avoiding taking the main responsibility as an instigator of the crisis, secondly, hiding the fact that the Oromia security forces were responsible for most of the killings, and thirdly, placating and pacifying his Amhara elite supporters by showing that the Amharas, or Christians were not the main victims after all. What the PM, perhaps, forgot was that the data breakdown of the nationality or religion of the victims is a “double-edge sword”. This is to say that it is open to different interpretations. Firstly, it is very plausible that the data suggests that it was not primarily inter-ethnic (given the majority killed were Oromos and unless one assumed they were “overwhelmed” by the Non-Oromos in Oromia!). Given the distribution of the nationality or religion of the victims and population distribution of the youth from different nationalities residing in Oromia, the majority of the deaths can logically and reasonably be attributed to actions taken by the Regional security forces. Secondly, the data suggests that the protest was not primarily aimed against Non-Oromos, which goes contrary to the political narrative of Amharas elites who have characterised the Oromo Qeerroo protests primarily as anti-Amahra and Anti-Christian rather than anti-Government. The PM’s attempt to placate Amhara elites could further infuriate Oromo nationalists who were at the receiving end of the blame for the protests when, in fact, the majority of the victims happened to be the Oromo youth.  It is ironic that the PM apparently cleaver ploy to kill several birds with one stone, in fact, failed to do so. To the contrary, the effect and consequences of releasing the data could very well be failure to divert responsibility from himself, failure to placate his Amhara elite supporters and to anger the Oromo youth and nationalists. Is this not a case of “Lose-Lose” game politics of the PM?

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3.2 The protests in Oromia also clearly demonstrated the bias and perilous partisanism of Amhara elites who dominate the Federal bureaucracy and the deep state in the Country. The Ethiopian President’s, Sahle-Work Zewde, statement on the protest and on the tragic death of Ethiopians in Oromia (described as crossing the red-line) is correct and is to be supported. Yet, the President has been rightly accused of monumental double standards. This is because the President did not utter a word when 250 Gumuz people were massacred by Amhara paramilitary forces, or when dozens of Qemants have been killed in Northern Gondar, or when dozens of Afars were murdered in most recent time. Given the non-partisan nature of the office of the Presidency, why pick and choose when condemning atrocities? Similarly, the selective and partisan nature of the statements from the Chairman of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Daniel Bekele, and the Minister of Peace, Seyoum Mesfin (PhD), show how biased and discriminating the Federal state organs have become.

4.The Domestic and Foreign Media and the Oromo Protests.

4.1 The vast majority of the domestic media (in particular the Diaspora social media) are unfortunately biased, selective and discriminating when it comes to reporting atrocities and killings. Whilst party-affiliated media is to some extent expected to be partisan, what is more worrying is the State and allied Media (e.g. EBC, Fana and Walta) has utterly failed to report cataclysmic events objectively, responsibly and with balance. To the contrary it has become the main vehicle for propagating and fanning ethnic hatred and conflicts. An ominous development is the capture and complete take-over of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority by the One-Nation hegemonists, who have embarked on supressing and stifling the voices of nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia as demonstrated, for example, by their partisan and selective attack on the OMN and the Media in Tigray. Worryingly, the trend is increasing towards the narrowing of the political space for free and democratic discourse, which is ironic given the credit given to the PM for improving “pluralism” in the Country.

4.2 The protests in Oromia have been reported by the foreign media rather widely recently, in particular since the PM won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Yet, the foreign media narratives are very often misdirected and misdiagnosed, rather deliberately. The problems in Ethiopia are reported invariably as inter-ethnic conflicts, as if the people have inherent propensity to conflict (This is a racist characterisation of the so called primitive and backward societies political culture or the “repressed” ethnic conflict that surface during democratisation. This is akin to similar racist notion of freed “Negros” propensity to violence) rather than the consequences of political struggle between forces who want to uphold democracy and self-determination and those who want to restore the oppressive Ancient Regime. This is blaming the victims, peoples and nationalities, and letting the oppressor elites and ruling classes scot-free. However, this is not surprising since the dominant neo-liberal global media’s deliberate mischaracterisation and condescending reporting of the conflicts and politics in Ethiopia as elsewhere in the developing world are mainly driven by their hegemonic interests, ideology and geopolitical calculations, even at the expense of Nation-State failure as in Iraq, Syria or Libya.

5.Conclusion.

5.1 The tragic loss of lives in Oromia needs to be condemned in no uncertain terms. Moreover, all the perpetrators of the violence should be held accountable. The circumstantial evidence, anecdotal reports and data provided by the PM himself (if unbiased and believed) suggest that the protests were primarily aimed against the PM and the OPDO/ODP and were not essentially inter-ethnic conflict; and that the Government is primarily responsible both as the instigator and as the authority that used disproportionate force to supress the protests.

5.2 The Government’s and opposition elites’ political narratives pertaining to the protests are largely biased and selective. The only way of ascertaining the true extent of ethnic, or religion targeting is to set up a neutral and credible commission to investigate the origin, motive and consequences of the protests in Oromia, for that matter also investigate the massacres in Benishangul-Gumuz, Qemant and Afar, at least as a start.

5.3 The One-Nation elites in the Federal State and bureaucracy have come out as partisans by their selective and biased condemnations. Moreover, they have undermined the neutrality and the non-party political nature of their offices. The President’s Office, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority are the latest to be hijacked by Amhara elite politics. They seem to follow the path forged by the President of the Federal Supreme Court, Meaza Ashenafi, who is to be remembered for declaring war on a Regional State in Ethiopia.

5.4 The PM has, perhaps, committed a “fatal” error as the immediate originator and as the underlying cause of the Oromo protests and must therefore be held responsible for the consequences; the political price of which is yet to unfold. How this adversely affects his grand strategy of restoring a unitarian state and his proposed Merger of the EPRDF is difficult to fully predict, but must surely weaken his position and the confidence and reliability of his One-Nation supporters, as seen by the jitters amidst the EZEMA and ANDM/ADP political leaderships. There is already “talk” of the coming together of Amhara political parties. The so-called “Balderas Council” and Eskinder Nega are conferring with the Amhara Diaspora. A unified, coherent and transparent Amhara political front to advance the legitimate interests and rights of the Amhara people and Nation would be a positive development in particular when it clarifies the contending political positions and the alignment of forces vis-à-vis the cardinal questions of self-determination, democracy and federalism in Ethiopia.

5.5 The challenge for democratic federalists is that in the struggle to uphold self-determination, democracy and federalism it is crucially important to carefully delineate and differentiate the main struggle against the   ruling elites who are seeking to restore the repressive Ancient Regime and those differences that might exist amongst the peoples and nationalities (often induced by elites), which are at their worst non-antagonistic and of secondary nature.

5.6 The best scenario for democratic federalists is to forge strategic alliances and press for the General Election to take place as scheduled; and ensure it is held peacefully, fairly, transparently and credibly.

5.7 May the victims of the protests in Oromia rest in eternal peace; and the truth be told irrespective of their nationality or faith.

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