Protesters in Ethiopia reject authoritarian development model

The Oromo students’ defiant protests are a response to decades of systemic and structural marginalization

December 19, 2015 4:00PM ET

Social media is full of images of dead and injured students from Ethiopia’s Oromia state. At least 75 protesters have been killed, hundreds injured and thousands more arrested in monthlong protests across the region. Tensions escalated sharply this week after authorities accused the demonstrators of terrorism and confirmed deploying military forces.

The government continues to take a hard line. On Dec. 17, Communications Minister Getachew Reda described the protesters as “terrorists” and “demonic.” Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has threatened to take “merciless action against any force bent on destabilizing the area,” echoing pronouncements by the country’s counterterrorism task force, which has promised “legal and proportionate” measures. 

This is an old tactic in Ethiopia, where protests and public proclamation of dissent are criminalized. Addis Ababa often dismisses genuine local grievances as evil designs of anti-development elements.  Over the last decade, the government in Addis Ababa used the “war on terrorism” and the rhetoric of development to silence independent voices and curtail democratic debate. The press is effectively muzzled, and independent civic and political organizations face an array of government tactics, including manipulation, co-optation and violent repression.

The immediate trigger for the crisis is the Integrated Regional Development Plan for Addis Ababa and the Surrounding Oromia Region, commonly known as the Master Plan, which aims to expand the Ethiopian capital’s jurisdiction to Oromia. But the movement is a reflection of long-simmering ethnic tensions and deeper historical injustices. The Oromo, who constitute nearly half of Ethiopia’s 100 million people, have long been pushed to the periphery of Ethiopia’s economic, social and political life. The anger and defiance of the last few weeks is a spontaneous response to decades of systemic and structural marginalization of the Oromo.

Despite the government’s claim, the ongoing largely peaceful protests pose no threat to Ethiopia’s economic or national security interests. However, the government’s heavy-handed crackdown on protesters and the implementation of the Master Plan presents a clear and present danger to the well-being of the Oromo.

Why are Oromos protesting?

These protests are not new. In April and May 2014, similar protests broke out when the government unveiled the controversial Master Plan. Dozens of people were killed and many more wounded. Authorities insist that the draft plan will better coordinate development activities and facilitate the delivery of public services to remote areas. The protesters say it is a blueprint for annexation and will displace millions of Oromo farmers.

Addis Ababa, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, faces a population explosion. The city has sprawled into neighboring Oromo villages, farmlands and forests. In the last 10 years, more than 150,000 Oromo farmers have been evicted from their ancestral lands without adequate compensation and proper relocation. Displaced farmers are becoming daily laborers on lands taken from them. Oromo activists and opposition politicians fear that the Master Plan will lead to a new and unrestrained land grab that could radically alter the region’s demographics and cultural makeup. The protesters say such expansion would cleanse the Oromo people and culture from the area.

Oromo protesters want a human-centered development that places people at the center of government policies and programs and allows everyone to get a fair share of what belongs to all.

Addis Ababa lies in the heart of Oromia. The Ethiopian Constitution recognizes the state’s “special interest” over the city and mandates Parliament to enact laws that would regulate the “provision of social services or the utilization of natural resources” between Oromia and Addis Ababa. However, two decades after the constitution’s adoption, no such laws have been enacted. Meanwhile, Addis Ababa’s expansion into surrounding Oromo towns continues unabated. This advance, which is in part fueled by demand for land by foreign and private investment, has had serious economic and ecological consequences for the area.

Human-centered development

The government has appealed to developmental goals to silence such concerns, but its approach to development is narrow. Ethiopia follows a developmental state model that doesn’t guarantee democratic participation and representative procedures necessary to scrutinize the legality, viability and proportionality of state-led projects. Its five-year Growth and Transformation Plan is mainly funded by foreign aid, including from the United States. The plan envisions the relocation of people from lands slated for infrastructure construction, industrial parks and large-scale agricultural development. These programs are often implemented through intimidation, violence and other repressive tactics.

Ethiopia happens to be a key U.S. ally in the “war on terrorism.” In 2006 the U.S. provided technical and financial support for Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia under the pretext of targeting the Somali armed group Al-Shabab. Since 2011, the U.S. has been flying armed reaper drones from bases in Ethiopia as part of its counterterrorism mission in East Africa. Washington acknowledges the ruling party’s increasingly authoritarian tactics but has consistently ignored human rights concerns. The U.S. State Department on Friday expressed concern about reports of deaths and urged the Ethiopian government “to permit peaceful protest and commit to a constructive dialogue.”

The protesters oppose policies that disregard the will of the people. They are calling for a system grounded in fair processes, driven by equitable outcomes and the effective participation of affected communities in defining the scope of development programs. In short, they want a human-centered development that places people at the center of government policies and programs and allows everyone to get a fair share of what belongs to all.

These protests are unprecedented in many ways. They are broad based and resilient as well as creative. They are using roadblocks, sit-ins, lunch boycotts and striking hand gestures and other symbols of civil disobedience to capture asymmetries of power and governance.

Their nonviolent resistance transcends deep political fault lines and is building interethnic solidarity among Ethiopia’s key political players. Over the last two weeks, several non-Oromo political parties and civic organizations have expressed solidarity with the protesters. This in and of itself is a remarkable achievement in a country sharply divided along ethnic lines.

This movement may not end the subordination of the Oromo people and the displacement of its farmers, but its legacy will endure. It leaves behind traces and reminders that will serve as the seedbed of indignation and frustration, providing inspiration for future struggles for equality and justice in Ethiopia.

Awol Allo is a fellow in human rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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