Oromo protests: Why US must stop enabling Ethiopia

Story highlights

  • Ethiopia is facing a mounting crisis over treatment of Oromo people
  • More than 100 people died on Saturday following clashes
  • Country could be thrown into chaos, says Awol Allo

Awol K. Allo is LSE Fellow in Human Rights at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights. He writes on the issues behind several months of protests by Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromos. Around 100 people died following clashes with security forces and demonstrators at the weekend, according to Amnesty International.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

London (CNN)Ethiopia is facing a crisis of unprecedented magnitude, yet its government and Western enablers refuse to acknowledge and recognize the depth of the crisis.

The nationwide protest held on Saturday by the Oromo people, the single largest ethnic group both in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, is clear evidence of a crisis that is threatening to degenerate into a full-scale social explosion.
    The protests are the most unprecedented and absolutely extraordinary display of defiance by the Oromo people and it is by far the most significant political developments in the country since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the strongman who ruled the country for over two decades.
    The protests took place in more than 200 towns and villages across Oromia, Ethiopia's largest region, and were attended by hundreds of thousands of people. According to Oromia media Network, security forces used live bullets against peaceful protestors, killing over 100 protestors.

    Annexation

    Oromos have been staging protest rallies across the country since April of 2014 against systematic marginalization and persecution of ethnic Oromos. The immediate trigger of the protest was a development plan that sought to expand the territorial limits of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, into neighbouring Oromo villages and towns.
    Dr. Awol Allo
    Oromos saw the proposed master plan as a blueprint for annexation which would further accelerate the eviction of Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands.
    When the protest resumed in November of 2015, the government dismissed the protestors as anti-peace elements and accused them of acting in unison with terrorist groups -- a common tactic used by the government to crackdown on dissent and opposition.
    The government used overwhelming force to crush the protest, killing hundreds of protestors and arresting thousands. In its recent report titled "Such a Brutal Crack Down", Human Rights Watch criticized the "excessive and lethal force" used by security forces against "largely peaceful protestors" and puts the number of deaths at over 400.
    The figure from the activist group is considerably higher.

    Historic Injustices

    The Oromo make up well over a third of Ethiopia's 100 million people. Historically, Oromos have been pushed to the margin of the country's political and social life and rendered unworthy of respect and consideration.
    Oromo culture and language have been banned and their identity stigmatized, becoming invisible and unnoticeable within mainstream perspectives.
    Ethiopians from Oromo group marching a road after protesters were shot dead by security forces in Wolenkomi, Addis Ababa, December 15, 2015
    Oromos saw themselves as parts of no part -- those who belong to the country but have no say in it, those who can speak but whose voices are heard as a noise, not a discourse.
    When the current government came into power a quarter of a century ago, it pursued a strategy of divide and rule in which the Oromos and Amharas, the two largest ethnic groups in the country, are presented as eternal adversaries.
    Oromos are blamed as secessionists to justify the continued monitoring, control, and policing of Oromo intellectuals, politicians, artists and activists.
    By depicting Oromo demands for equal representation and autonomy as extremist and exclusionary, it tried to drive a wedge between them and other ethnic groups, particularly the Amharas.
    This allowed the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and Tigrayan elites to present themselves as the only political movement in the country that could provide the stability and continuity sought by regional and global powers with vested interest in the region.
    Although these protests are triggered by more recent events, they are microcosms [of] a more enduring and deeper crisis of political representation and systematic marginalization suffered by the Oromo people.
    In its 2015 comprehensive country report titled "Because I am Oromo", Amnesty International found evidence of systematic and widespread patterns of indiscriminate and disproportionate attack against the Oromo simply because they are Oromos.

    US Influence

    The United States see the Ethiopian government as a critical partner on the Global War on Terror.
    This led administration officials to go out of their way to create fantasy stories which cast Ethiopia as democratic and its leaders as progressive. In 2012, then US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described Meles Zenawi, the architect of the current system, as "uncommonly wise" and someone "able to see the big picture and the long game, even when others would allow immediate pressures to overwhelm sound judgment."
    In 2015, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman praised Ethiopia as "a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair, credible, open and inclusive." She further added, ""Every time there is an election, it gets better and better." That election ended with the ruling party winning 100% of the seats in parliament by wiping out the one opposition in the previous parliament.
    In 2016, President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Ethiopia amid widespread opposition by human rights groups. Obama doubled down on previous endorsements by administration officials by describing the government as 'democratically-elected."

    A police state