September 19, 2018
OAA condemns the recent spate of violence that has swept across Ethiopia. We decried the wholesale killings carried out by TPLF security forces against peaceful protesters these past two years and we decry these recent occurrences as well. Accounts that attribute the pattern of fatalities, across the country, to Oromo youth run the risk of contributing to an orchestrated campaign set to diminish Oromo participation in discussions about the future of Ethiopia. If recent reports and accusations are not treated extremely cautiously, these matters can become part of what is becoming a concerted effort to shift the political conversation in a direction that unjustly maligns an entire national group.
On September 15, 2018 a massive rally was held in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square to welcome leaders of the once-banned Oromo Liberation Front. Unfortunately, media coverage of events surrounding this event intentionally or inadvertently have disparaged the participants who gathered peacefully to celebrate. Our concern is not simply with the specifics cited in these reports, but with the glaring omissions and the overall framing regarding conflicts in Ethiopia. These accounts ignore contributions that Oromo youth have made in bringing about current reforms. Oromo youth (known as “qeerroo”) endured the brunt of the sacrifices undertaken to bring about political reform in Ethiopia. Their persistent, peaceful, and coordinated efforts benefited all groups in the country. It is imperative that their voice be included in any discussion about the future of Ethiopia.
Instead, however, a disturbing trend has emerged that seeks to alienate the qeerroo from inclusion. As of late, when reports on disturbances or violent incidents occur in Ethiopia, many of these accounts attempt to link them to Oromo youth, often suggesting that they are either an undisciplined force (“mob,” or “rebels without a cause”) or inherently violent and problematic. These mischaracterizations ignore issues of scale and context and are not substantiated by evidence. In fact, the opposite is actually true. This kind of negative portrayal has a long history within Ethiopian politics and has been used to justify the exclusion of the Oromo people from equal political participation. Inaccurately framing the Oromo as the chief perpetrators of ethnic violence in the country dismisses the history of abuse against the Oromo that human rights organizations have documented for many years.
Many reports about the rally and the events leading up to it failed to adequately capture the complexity of what was taking place on the ground or its significance for all players within Ethiopian politics. Ethiopian news outlets raised alarms concerning the rally’s show of Oromo unity contributing to a hostile environment in the days leading up to the event. Oromo youth travelling to Addis Ababa were blocked from entering the city for hours by as yet unidentified antagonists. They were told to go back to Oromia and that they were not welcome in Addis Ababa. Many Oromos were beaten, harassed and two Oromo youths were killed while attempting to hoist the OLF flag the day before the gathering. Rocks were thrown at one of the few Afaan Oromo schools in Addis Ababa, The Tadesse Birru School, and the Oromia International Bank also sustained damage. The Oromia Cultural Center, located at the center of Meskel Square had to be protected by police against vandalism. Mainstream outlets failed to include these occurrences in reports about the rally and its aftermath.
In spite of violence targeting Oromo en route to the event, the rally itself proceeded and ended peacefully. According to the Police Commissioner, approximately 4 million people attended the event at Meskel Square. However, while the celebration was still underway at the event venue, provocateurs went around the city and surrounding towns, such as Burayu, looting property, harassing and attacking residents. The perpetrators suspiciously declared that they were “qeerroo”. Given decades of political repression and state violence, Ethiopia’s social fabric is extremely fragile. It is inflammatory to frame what is happening as “Oromos” vs “others”. Most of the 2.5 million people displaced across Ethiopia since 2017 have been persons of Oromo ethnicity. For months, organized groups have been attacking Oromo, Somali, Gedeo and other peoples leading to massive displacements. The events in Addis Ababa should be seen in the context of these coordinated attacks.
The political scene in Ethiopia right now is full of disgruntled political groups vying for power. These groups have been trying to utilize fear to create narratives to support their rise on the political scene. Instilling distrust of Oromo youth is a convenient device to achieve that purpose. We urge impartial observers and reporters to avoid playing into this narrative. Some recent accounts have fallen prey to this snare. We believe reporting, especially during this period, should ensure sufficient vetting of facts and make overt attempts to present a balanced perspective in order to contribute to the peaceful coexistence of different groups in Ethiopia at a time when the country is trying to direct itself towards democracy and inclusive governance.