Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Aslan Hasan, a student belonging to the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia, was called either a guilt-ridden terrorist who committed suicide or an innocent victim of brutal state repression, depending on who you listen to.
His death came following a bout of violence in May, when Oromo students in several towns protested against a government plan for the capital Addis Ababa to expand into Oromia Regional State, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous federal region with around one-third of the nation’s over 90 million people.
Security services said Hasan hanged himself in his cell after being arrested for a grenade attack that occurred at Haramaya University in the east of the country. Online Oromo activists such as Jawar Mohammed say Aslan, 24, had his throat slit by police on June 1 while in custody after being snatched four days before. A witness said it appeared his neck had been cut and his eyes gouged out.
Oromia Regional State is Ethiopia’s largest and most populous federal region
Ethiopia’s government is frequently accused of trampling on constitutionally protected ethnic rights as it prioritises security, political stability, and public infrastructure investments to drive growth. While technocrats have devised a rational scheme to manage a bulging city, the red-hot political issue of Oromo rights was barely considered, according to an Addis Ababa University academic who wishes to remain anonymous. “They think something is good, they go for it,” he said about the ruling coalition’s top-down methods. “It’s a done deal, it’s not consultative at all.”
Jawar and other Oromos – including normally acquiescent Oromo members of the ruling political group – say the “integrated master plan” is an annexation of their territory that will weaken the ethnicity politically and also lead to the eviction of Oromo farmers from their land on the periphery of Addis Ababa. Oromos claim the capital city, which they call Finfinne, as their own, and in 2004 protested against the government’s attempt to change their capital to Adama.
The most serious unrest in May took place in the western town of Ambo and involved a student protest-turned-riot, with buildings damaged, cars torched, and civilians shot dead by security forces. At Haramaya, a grenade was chucked at students watching a televised football match. Officials blamed Oromo separatists; activists pointed a finger at agent provocateurs from the regime. In the southeast of Oromia, grainy video purports to show security forces firing on students around Madawalabu University at Robe. An independent assessment estimated as many as 50 people died.
The lack of clarity epitomises the propaganda battle raging inside Ethiopia – and online – amid fear of retribution and a paucity of reliable information. Few if any independent journalists or bloggers operate in the hotspots, and Ambo, for example, was placed on lockdown by security services when violence broke out. Two Peace Corps volunteers who blogged about the unrest – saying police killed two of their unarmed neighbours away from the protests – fled the country soon after.
While debate continues about exactly what happened, the protests indicate a growing and potentially important trend: a resurgence of Oromo nationalism that’s increasingly driven by online activists.
During the demonstrations, US-based Jawar, a graduate student at Columbia University, acted as a central hub to distribute information from Ethiopia via Facebook and Twitter: posting photos of dead students and sharing news of protests under way. Cooperation between disaffected Oromo students and savvy mobilisers in the diaspora presents a fresh and substantial challenge to a government that still has work to do in resolving the centuries old issue of unmet Oromo demands for fair treatment and representation.
“The recent Oromo protests and the new online activism is significant, mostly because it represents a fresh, much younger generation of Oromo nationalists, and signals that Oromo nationalism is durable politically,” said Michael Woldemariam, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University.
Since moving into Ethiopia’s highlands in the 1600s, the Oromos have been discriminated against by the ruling Tigray and Amhara classes, who often saw them as “uncivilised”, according to historian John Markakis. The Oromos were largely excluded from national political power until 1991, when the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was allied with other rebels, helped overthrow a military junta.
But the OLF soon left the transitional government after falling out with the dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The OLF has been in rebellion ever since and was classified as a terrorist group by lawmakers in 2011.
For the past two decades, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) has represented Ethiopia’s Oromo in the country’s ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. But the Oromo opposition claim the OPDO has been subservient to the country’s Tigrayan political elite, and too weak to promote the community’s interests.
‘Fractious political debates’
Jawar’s political profile soared a year ago when he said on Al Jazeera’s current affairs show The Stream that he considered himself an “Oromo first” before he considered himself an Ethiopian. This put him at odds with many in the opposition, who think the current federal system that promotes ethnic rights undermines national progress and unity. Advocates of a unitary state promote a proud history of Ethiopia’s ancient highland civilisation and resistance to European colonialism led by Amharas.
Ethiopia’s 1994 constitution promotes ethnic rights by organising the country into federal states partly on the basis of “language and identity”; recognising all Ethiopian languages equally; respecting ethnic identities and non-harmful cultures; ensuring representation of ethnic minorities in both chambers of legislature; and, controversially, by providing mechanisms for all groups to try and become federal states and for states to secede from the federation.
In recent decades, Oromos have been weakened by fractious political debates about the nature of the self-determination pushed for by the OLF. Jawar said a new breed of educated, technocratic Oromo activists is revitalising the cause by moving beyond this factionalism. They have set up the Oromo Media Network and held “Oromo First” speaking events in the US. Jawar said they have begun to bring OPDO and OLF members closer together, and plan to work with the rest of the domestic Oromo opposition, who will be trying to break the EPRDF’s stranglehold on parliament in elections next year.
Recent government arrests of opposition politicians and bloggers suggest that will be difficult, said Woldemariam. “The existence of armed Oromo opposition makes the task of the non-violent opposition who participate in the electoral process a lot more difficult,” he said.
At the end of last year, the activists cut their teeth by taking on and beating multinational giant Heineken by pushing drinkers to #BoycottBedele – a local beer owned by the Dutch brewer that planned to sponsor concerts by Ethiopian pop star Teddy Afro. The reason was that the singer allegedly praised as a “holy war” the late 19th-century military expansions by Emperor Menelik II, an Amhara, that resulted in the incorporation of the Oromo and other southern groups into what became the modern Ethiopian state.
The Oromo movement now faces two comparable political challenges, according to Jawar: convincing the Amhara that “the old days of single language, single community dominance, will not come back”, and targeting the Tigrayan elite’s control over the country’s government, security services, and economy.
“We have to make sure they cannot have free rein on our resources and there’s a number of tactics in place to make sure that succeeds,” Jawar added.
Jawar preaches peaceful civil resistance, yet admits this may not be sustainable. He said he told top security officials that law-abiding protests would be confined to campuses and that they only spread and became unruly after police attacked the demonstrators.
“It might be a challenge for the Oromo who believe in non-violence to maintain control over the population, given the kind of killing the government undertook,” Jawar said. “Armed struggle might become the permanent form of response.”