(Dr. Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni)

The Ethiopian Prime Minister, in his midyear report to the Ethiopian federal parliament on Thursday, March 10, 2016,  did neither apologized as some media outlets including the BBC reported nor responded to any of the demands of the Oromo people. His talk of good governance and corruption does not address the demands of the Oromo people which needs structural, legal and policy changes in how the Ethiopian state treats the Oromo people.

1/ No Change of Policy on the ongoing blood shedding of #OromoProtests

Sadly, the Ethiopian government’s stance on the ongoing Oromo Protests also remains the same. There is no policy change and change of course to stop the ongoing bloodshed, release of unlawfully detained and bring to justice the perpetrators of these killings.

 The subtle, yet clear message of Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn’s address to the Ethiopian Parliament, as aired by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), is to continue more devastating, merciless, and brutal attacks in way that the Oromo people shall never recover again. Of course, the pretext for the continued attacks, according to the Prime Minister, is “fighting anti-peace elements.”

2/ No acknowledgment of the number of the killed, and no moment of silence to remember them

The Minnesota Legislature in the United States stood up and held moment of silence for the peaceful Oromo protesters killed in Oromia, Ethiopia, just the other day. In the Oromia capital, Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian parliament did not even verbally acknowledge the killings of peaceful Oromo protesters let alone holding moment of silence for the protesters killed by the Ethiopian security forces.

Over the last four months, over 200 Oromo peaceful protesters were killed, according to Human Rights Watch. Tens of thousands are injured and arrested all in the name of fighting anti-peace elements at Oromo wedding parties, in marketplaces, in dormitory rooms at university campuses, in public spaces in cities and villages. Evidences abound.  The mutilated and blooded bodies of the victims that flooded the social media and continue to do so are hard material evidences for the brutal killings of peaceful Oromo protesters.

3/ No Change in mischaracterization of the causes of the Oromo Protests

The calculus and the prism of how the Ethiopian state defines the causes of the Oromo people to the rest of the world and other Ethiopians continue to be the same. The Ethiopian government commonly uses three methods to mischaracterize the causes of the Oromo people. The most commons are “Narrow nationalism,” “Islamic Extremism” and “Secessionism.”

It is important to note here that the majority of the Oromo people are Christians. In fact in terms of the sheer size, Oromo Christians outnumbers the Amhara and Tigrayan Christians both in the Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations. However, Oromos are literally absent in the leadership of both religions – affirming the fact that Oromos are marginalized not only economically and politically, but also in religious institutions.

The reason behind the rush to mischaracterize the Oromo people as “Islamic extremism” is the West’s predisposition to buy Ethiopia’s regional security narratives of fighting “Islamic extremism” in the name of global war on terror. Similarly, the secessionist narratives are advanced by the Ethiopian government to scare other Ethiopians from supporting the Oromo causes, and to legitimize the use of forces against the Oromo. The central demands of the Oromo people have always been about respect for Oromo identity, self-rule, and an end to the systemic exclusion and marginalization of the Oromo people from Ethiopia’s political, economic, and social lives.

To the credit of the Prime Minister, in his latest speech at the parliament, he did not use the “the Islamic extremism” and “the secessionist” narratives to mischaracterize the causes of the Oromo people. Similarly, he did not connect the Oromo Protests with Eritrea or other foreign forces including the Diaspora this time around. He did not mention the ghosts of some groups that Ethiopian government often uses as pretext to attack the Oromo people either.

4/ The “narrow nationalism” narratives to disguise Oromo’s marginalization and exclusion 

The Prime Minister’s main stay in mischaracterizing the Oromo people’s cause was “narrow nationalism.” In a country where the Oromo do not exist in any political, economic, media, religious and cultural institutions, it is mindboggling to accuse the Oromo people as narrow nationalists. This is the practice of accusing the victim first. The truth is Oromia, the homeland of the Oromo people, is the only single place where most Ethiopians come and live harmonious and peaceful life. By any measure, the Oromo people are the least racist and xenophobic people in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian state uses “the Oromo narrow nationalism mantra” to attack, deter, and scare both Oromos and non-Oromos from speaking for the plight and causes of the Oromo people. In that sense, it is very successful narratives. This narrative coupled with many others systemic exclusionary practices, have left the Oromo without single Oromo media, Oromo institutions or political constituency in the country.  The Oromo people have been cowed so far. The tide is certainly turning. The younger Oromo generation will not shy away from demanding their rights whatever label that the Ethiopian state might give them.

5/ The misinformation and mixed message on the question of “an apology not given” appears to be intentional

The misinformation of the international media, to some extent the local media, including the BBC on the issue of the Prime Minister’s “apology” appears to be intentional. The Prime Minister’s statement is typical Ethiopian (Amharic) double talk at play.

He said the problems the Oromo people were protesting against are entirely the making of the Ethiopian government. He said lack of good governance and corruption are the main reasons. He said he is sorry for the lack of good governance and corruption and whatever happened as a result of that. This later part is what is taken as an “apology.”

But, that is not true. He, in fact, declared more attacks, more killings, more maiming and more torture in the same vein that he said he is sorry. How could you apologize while continuing the killings against the very people? How could you apologize without recognizing the victims? How could you apologize without releasing those who were detained for the very cause the Prime Minister said are legitimate? In essence the truth is there was no apology given to the Oromo people.

A funeral ceremony of a boy killed during demonstration. Holonkomi, Oromia, Ethiopia December 17, 2015. [REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri]
A funeral ceremony of a boy killed during demonstration. Holonkomi, Oromia, Ethiopia December 17, 2015. [REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri]

6/ What is next and what is in the store for the Oromo People?

The Prime Minister clearly said his government will continue to take more devastating, merciless and brutal attacks that the Oromo people will never recover from (he phrased it as if the war is waged on anti-peace elements). He reiterated and used the same words and phrases he and others within his government used to carry out the ongoing killings and attacks. The operative phrase in the Prime Minister’s statement is the Amharic phrase “የማያዳግም እርምጃ መውሰዱን እንቀጥላለን”. What that mean is simple. He will continue to send more military and security forces to crash, kill, maim and torture the people. It means no letup.   

7/ Call for Peace and Political solutions

For those of us who were calling and continue to call in vain upon the Ethiopian government to make peace and address the demands of the Oromo people, the Prime Minister’s statement is very devastating. However, we still continue to call upon the Ethiopian government to take the following interim measures as a way forward to sustainable political solution.

7.1/ Release all political prisoners and protesters, and establish an Independent Inquiry Commission to investigate the killings

We hoped the Prime Minister and the Ethiopian Parliament to call for the establishment of independent inquiry commission to investigate the killings of more than 200 peaceful Oromo protesters; and order the release of all protesters and political prisoners who are still languishing in prisons in connection with the demands and the causes the Ethiopian government acknowledged as legitimate.

Still, it is extremely critical for the Ethiopian government to immediately establish Independent Inquiry Commission to investigate these large scale nationwide killings; and release all political prisoners and protesters detained in connection with this ongoing protests. There is no other way to heal and move forward from this crisis.

7.2/ Withdraw the military and security forces from Oromia and return them into their barracks

We hoped the Prime Minister to announce the unconditional and immediate withdrawal of the military and security forces from Oromo civilian neighborhoods, and return them back to their barracks.  It is a grave mistake for the Ethiopian government to deploy the army and security forces in cities, rural villages, wedding parties, market places, dormitories, university and school compounds, and even burial places.  These will greatly undermine the legitimacy and acceptability the Ethiopian security and armed forces among the Oromo people.  If this situation persists, it will be very difficult for the Ethiopian military and security forces to regain its name and trust among the Oromo people again, if not already lost.

The ongoing killing sprees in Oromia unless immediately stopped will have lasting black mark on the Ethiopian military and security forces far beyond the borders of Ethiopia. Unless these widely reported abuse of Oromo civilians by the Ethiopian military are immediately halted, the United Nations might even ask for Ethiopia to withdraw from existing peacekeeping missions or prohibit its participation in the  future missions on the ground of  bad track record and bad publicity.    If this happens, we will all blame the Ethiopian political leadership who continue to misuse and abuse the services of the Ethiopian military and security forces by deploying them against civilian population it is meant to protect.  Therefore, it is very urgent and important for the Ethiopian government to withdraw the security and armed forces from Oromia, and stop the killings. 

7.3/ Make structural, institutional, legal and policy reforms to address the Oromo People’s legitimate demands

Ethiopia has an Oromo problem. The Ethiopian government is not honest in dealing with this problem. Yes, there is corruption in Oromia as much as there is corruption in Tigray or Amhara or Southern Regions. Yes, there is bad governance in Oromia as much as there is bad governance in Tigray, Amhara or Southern Regions.

That said, the Prime Minister’s attempt to equate the problems in Oromia with the problems in other regions is a major strategic mistake.  The issue of corruption and good governance are less than one fourth of the problems in Oromia. Three fourth of the problems of Oromo people are structural and institutional; demanding fundamental structural, institutional, legal and policy changes.

Talking of the problems in Oromia merely in the sense of lack of good governance and corruption are pure self-deceptions when the demands of the Oromo people are crystal clear and the people are shouting them from mountain tops. It is extremely important for the Ethiopian government to accept the fact that the systemic exclusion and marginalization of the Oromo people from Ethiopia’s economic, political and social life needs structural, institutional, and legal and policy changes.

8/ Areas of major structural, institutional, legal and Policy Reforms

8.1/ Land ownership

The Ethiopian government’s unconstitutional nationalization of Oromo people’s land through Proclamation 455/2005 are not an issue of good governance or corruption. This law and subsequent land ownership, land lease and land use laws should be repealed in a way that recognizes the private and communal land ownership and land use tradition of the Oromo common law. As we speak, there are more than 15 proclamations that are in place to evict and expropriate the Oromo of their land. These laws should be repealed. There are more than a dozen federal government institutions including the so called “Industrial Park Development Corporation”, Ministries of Agriculture, Investment, Trade, Federal Affairs, Urban Development, and “Federal Land Banks” that are evicting and expropriating the lands of the Oromo farmers’ at-will. 

Through the practices of these federal government entities and others, hundreds of thousands of farmers are evicted from their lands according to the government’s own data. The Ethiopian government must not only reinstate the evicted Oromo farmers back on their lands  but also must repeal these laws and abolish these institutions of land theft and land grab permanently. Mere talk of good governance and corruption will not solve these structural issues. The Oromo people want the Prime Minister to address these issues head on. Otherwise, as the Prime Minister himself alluded to, the Oromo people will take the law into their own hands to take back their lands and protect their rights.

8.2/ Making Afaan Oromo a federal working language

 This requires changing the monolingual language policy of the federal government by amending the constitution. The federal government must make a policy decision to change this policy and replace it with bilingual language policy to make Afaan Oromo federal working language on equal footing with Amharic. Unless this monolingual language policy changes, Afaan Oromo speakers have no hope of either participating in the economic, political and social life of Ethiopia or even get the services of the federal government.  The Prime Minister did not even mention this critical issue in his address to the parliament.  The Oromo people cannot continue with the current state of exclusion and marginalization. The Oromo protests shows the Oromo people have had enough. Ethiopian government must urgently make Afaan Oromo federal working language on equal footing with Amharic as demanded by the Oromo Protests.

8.3/ Making Addis Ababa an integral part of Oromia National Regional State

This question is a perennial question Oromo people have been demanding since Proclamation No.7/1992 separated Addis Ababa from Oromia. Many died for this very cause since, and continue to die for it. As far as the Oromo people are concerned, the decision of the federal government to separate Addis Ababa from surrounding Oromia region is null and void ab initio. No one knows this better than the Prime Minister himself. The status quo is lose-lose situation for both Addis Ababa and Oromia.

The Prime Minister must step-up and provide political leadership courageously to restore the administrative jurisdiction of Addis Ababa under Oromia.  The current “less than renter status” of Oromia National Regional State which nominally calls Addis Ababa its capital is unacceptable.  The Oromo people are not looking for symbolic representation in Addis Ababa. They need real control and real power which includes the taxing and police powers. This critical issue will not be addressed by talking about corruption and good governance. This is a real issue that needs real and honest discussions instead of kicking the can down the road.

8.4/ Implementing genuine federalism and self- administration in Ethiopia

The Oromo people are looking for genuine federalism in Ethiopia. Oromo people’s right to self-administration under the system of genuine federalism are one of the key demands of Oromo Protests. Oromia now is more of a vassal state under the control of others. The Oromo people want an immediate end of this state of affairs.  This is extremely self-evident truth that do not need any explanation. EPRDF and the Prime Minister have the responsibility to implement genuine federalism in Ethiopia in general and in Oromia in particular.

8.5/ Issuing Oromo economic empowerment and urbanization policies

 It is open secret that the Oromo people have been and continue to be excluded and marginalized from Ethiopia’s economic, political and urban life systematically, mainly through the monolingual language policy and other related institutional mechanisms. Because of these systemic exclusions, despite the population size, the Oromo people are people without a single city to call its own.  Clear national and regional policies are need to be put in place to remedy these injustices perpetrated on the Oromo people, and end the ongoing systemic marginalization of the Oromo particularly in Addis Ababa. 

9/ Concluding thoughts

 The aforementioned institutional, legal, policy and political reforms are by no means exhaustive lists of the deep-seated Oromo People’s grievances. It is not meant to be so either. Far from it. The Ethiopian government must genuinely and openly engage Oromo leaders and political groups to articulate and address these very deep rooted grievances and systemic exclusions of the Oromo people before they are further deepened and reach a breaking point.

 It is a major strategic plunder for the Ethiopian government to continue to suppress and repress these legitimate demands, which the government itself acknowledges, through use of force and by military mean. The Ethiopian government must not only recognize and acknowledge the deep-seated Oromo people’s systemic exclusions and grievances, but also must acknowledge and accept that repression will not be solved by more repression.

The purpose of this reflection is merely an attempt to encourage dialogue and peaceful political discourse to bring about durable and sustainable peace. The more the Ethiopian government open up the political and public space by allowing freedom of association, assembly and expression, far beyond the ongoing political cadres’ monologue, the better the country will be. 

Ethiopia’s political ills could be healed through genuine federalism by implementing full measure of self-government by Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities in a way that will nurture mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and build progressive society. The current constitution could be a very good foundation to build on with some amendments.  All it takes is the political will, leadership and courage by all parties who have stakes in the Ethiopia’s future, particularly the government and the governing party. These might be like choosing between a rock and a hard place for some control freak interest groups within the governing party, but this is the only best route to navigate this country out of this troubled waters.

* The author, Dr. Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni, is an Attorney and Legal Counsel based in the United States. He also served as a High Court Judge in Ethiopia, and Legal Adviser at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also served as Diplomat at the Ethiopian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York.

Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni

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