There are protests happening around the globe. I’m not talking about Venezuela, Ukraine, Thailand or the Arab world.  I’m talking about Oromo communities in major cities across the world and in Oromia, Ethiopia, who are taking to the streets to protest the extension of the country’s capital into their region, united by the use of #OromoProtests. This has not been given much exposure in western media, whose main focus in the region is on the catastrophic events in South Sudan and the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. To try and rectify this, I present to you ‘Oromo Protests 101’.

The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, comprised of about 27 million people. Their region, Oromia, is the largest too, and the capital city of Addis Ababa is in their region, since they originally lived in the city that they call Finfinne until it was invaded in the nineteenth century. They have their own language, Oromifa, and view themselves as distinct from the other ethnic groups, including the second largest group, the Amhara.

The Ethiopian federal government is currently run by a coalition party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front made up of representatives from the Oromo, the Amhara, the southern nations, and the Tigray. The latter dominates the coalition through the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.  There is also a great deal of political decentralisation along ethnic lines, with ethnically defined regions having their own governments too. All of this is to say that ethnicity and cultural identity has been and still is a politically and socially contentious issue in Ethiopia.

Oromo students took to the streets last month to protest against the ‘Integrated Development Master Plan’ proposed by the Addis Ababa administration, which aims to expand the city by 1.1 million hectares, incorporating 36 towns and cities from Oromia into the Addis Ababa jurisdiction. This goes against article 49 of Ethiopia’s constitution which states that Oromia is protected ‘with respect to supply of services or the utilization of resources or administrative matters arising from the presence of the city’. As well as the obvious breach of the constitution, the planned extension is seen by the Oromo to be yet another ethnically oppressive measure in a long line of suppression they have suffered at the hands of the Ethiopian state.

Historically, the Oromo were a self-governing people, living at times in conflict with the neighbouring communities of Somalis and Amhara. From the late nineteenth century the Oromo were brought under centralized Ethiopian control during the Scramble for Africa, during which Emperor Menelik II conquered the communities and formed modern Ethiopia. Since then, the Oromo have experienced discrimination in the form of bans on the use of the Oromifa language, abuse against Oromo women and imprisonment and torture, often leading to death, of Oromian nationalists.

Whilst the Oromo language is now legal, persecution in the form of imprisonment and killing of Oromos still remains a problem. The political organisation Oromo Liberation Front has been labeled a terrorist group and systematic persecution and imprisonment of opposition parties such as the Oromo People’s Congress and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement is frequent. Establishing reliable figures and data is difficult due to the government’s strict control of NGOs operating inside the country, but statistics from the Oromia Support Group states that since 1994 there have been 2,754 extra-judicial killings, and 842 reports of disappearance.

Given this history, the expansion plans concern the Oromo as many farmers will lose their land, and cities and towns will lose their Oromo social and cultural identity. The encroachment on the land has been called a ‘land grab’. The Ethiopian state constitutionally owns all land, which means any attempt to defend land rights of the farmers will be overruled. More immediate concerns consist of how the Ethiopian government is reacting to the protestors. They are using Special Forces in Oromia to counteract the peaceful protests. There have been scores of reports on the use of deadly force, and the best estimate for a death toll to date stands at around 80 people, including children as young as 11 years old, with hundreds more injured and arrested.

The government wants to expand Addis Ababa to keep up with the growing pressures and demands for space. It has been dubbed Africa’s ‘diplomatic capital’ as it hosts the African Union and a number of UN offices and international missions, and this contributes to the need for expansion. Whilst this need cannot be refuted, especially given the high rate of urbanisation at 4.2% annually, the plans were created without any consultation of the Oromo people, who will be the most affected by their implementation.

The Oromo diaspora have been protesting en masse across the world, from Washington D.C. to Sydney to London against the expansion plan and the brutal treatment of the protesters.  It will be surprising if the Ethiopian government backs down given their track record, but it is certain that the Oromo will continue to defend their rights.

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