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Who are the Oromo people and what's happening to them?

Who are the Oromo people?

The Oromo people are an ethnic group and nation native to western Africa, primarily Ethiopia. They speak the Afaan Oromoo language. They are also the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, representing 34.5% of the country’s population- in 2020, their population size was estimated to be about 35,175,000 people in Ethiopia alone. They are also located around the world in Kenya, Somalia, the USA, Australia and Canada.

The Oromo people are engaged in many occupations. In Ethiopia, the southern Oromo are largely pastoralists who raise goats and cattle. Other groups work in agriculture or in urban centres, and some sell products and food items like coffee beans at local markets. While their traditional religion is Waaqeffanna, only 15% still follow it, with 55-60% following Islam and 40-45% following Christianity. They say that their religious differences do not matter as their morals are rooted in their culture, not their religion.

Gunther Schlee, and ethnologist who has studied the group, says that violence within their community is considered deviant.

So how has this peaceful group become caught up in one of the biggest human rights crises in Ethiopia’s history?

While the group are the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, they have historically been subjected to political social and cultural injustices. Systematic discrimination against Oromo people has left them politically disenfranchised even today, although they have struggled against oppression since the formation of the modern Ethiopian state. There are currently an estimated 20,000 Oromo political prisoners in Ethiopia. The arrest and treatment of these prisoners has been widely criticised by groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. For example, Amnesty International reports use of torture on prisoners at the Maikelawi detention centre and the use of information obtained through torture in trials. In 2009, the Advocates for Human Rights group documented a 96-page report of human rights violations against the Oromo in Ethiopia under three successive regimes; the Ethiopian Empire under Haile Selassie, the Marxist Derg and the current government, the EPRDF.

A fight long from starting and far from over

Oromos have been staging protest rallies across the country since more than a decade ago against systemic marginalisation and persecution of ethnic Oromos. Oromo culture and language have been banned and their identity stigmatised. Their media and public voice have been snatched from them too- for example, the first Afaan Oromoo newspaper in Ethiopia, Jimma Times, was recently established, but has faced lots of harassment and persecution from the government since its beginning. Abuse of Oromo media is widespread in Ethiopia and is reflective of the general oppression Oromos face in the country.

Peaceful protest is the Oromos weapon of choice to fight the injustices they suffer. Many recent protests have been due to the planned expansion of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital) into neighbouring Oromo villages, towns and farmland, forcibly displacing them. Many Oromos saw the master plan as the blueprint for annexation, which would further accelerate the eviction of Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands.

Recent protests/ conflict:

  • Between 2005 and August 2008, the Oromia Support Group (OSG) recorded 594 extrajudicial killings of Oromos by Ethiopian government security forces and 43 disappearances in custody.

  • Then came 2015, when mass protests, mainly consisting of the Oromo people, began primarily over the expansion of the municipal boundary of the Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital) into Oromia (a regional state in Ethiopia and homeland of the Oromo). The government dismissed the protestors and accused them of acting in unison with terrorist groups- a tactic commonly used by the government to crack down on dissent and opposition. German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported violent protests in the region following the governments re-zoning plan named ‘Addis Ababa Master Plan’. More than 20 students were killed. Since 2015, over 500 people have been killed and many more injured during protests.

  • Then, in 2016, between 55 and 300 festival goers were massacred at the most sacred and largest event among the Oromo, the Irreecha cultural thanksgiving festival. Millions of Oromos gathered for this event, most celebrating and some engaging in peaceful protests. However, the situation quickly spiralled into chaos when the Ethiopian security forces responded to the peaceful protests by firing tear gas and live bullets over the two million people. They asked no questions, but simply sentenced some 55-300 people to death that night, one that will go down in Oromo history as one of their darkest days. In the weeks that followed, various rebuttals came from the Oromos, from diplomatic and peaceful solutions to angry attacks on government buildings and private businesses. From the 8th October that year to August of 2017, Ethiopia declared it was in a ‘state of emergency’. During the state of emergency, security forces arbitrarily detained over 21,000 people.

  • In 2017, conflict between the Oromo and Somalis over territorial disputes lead to 400,000 Oromo people being displaced. Further conflict between the Oromo and Gedeo people in the south of Ethiopia, and continued violence at the Oromia-Somali border region, lead to Ethiopia having the largest number of people fleeing their homes in 2018, with 1.4 million people newly displaced.

  • In 2020, following the assassination of musician Hachalu Hundessa on June 29th that year, protests broke out resulting in the deaths of at least 200 people

Is anyone listening?

Various human rights groups have publicised the government persecution of Oromos in Ethiopia for decades. Amnesty International said “between 2011 and 2014, at least 5000 Oromos have been arrested based on their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government. These include thousands of peaceful protesters and hundreds of opposition political party members. The government anticipates a high level of opposition in Oromia and signs of dissent are sought out and regularly- sometimes pre-emptively- suppressed. In numerous cases, actual or suspected dissenters have been detained without charge or trial, or killed by security services during protests, arrests and in detention.” Amnesty International also said that there is a "sweeping repression" in the Oromo region in Ethiopia. Other groups have publicised the oppression here, as well as various small-scale and larger-scale media outlets, but there's limited coverage and interest.

So why is there no coverage? No global outrage?

The muted response of global governments, from the US to the UK, is partly to blame for the silencing of the Oromo struggle. The reason for this is not because there is a lack of information- there are diplomats in the region who are aware of what’s happening in Oromia. While the evidence of issues here are clear, opposing narratives from influential western governments such as the USA are trivialising the oppression of Oromos in Ethiopia. The US see Ethiopia and their government as a critical partner on the global 'war on terror'. This has led to administration officials going out of their way to create fantasy stories casting the government in Ethiopia as democratic and progressive. In 2015, the 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 added, “Every time there is an election it gets better and better.” The election ended with the ruling party winning 100% of the seats by wiping out the one opposition in the previous parliament. Despite this, consistent descriptions from human rights organisations and reports from the US government itself conjure up images of a police state who surveil and control their entire society, ruling with fear and force rather than democracy and mutual respect.

For the UK government, their issues with addressing the Oromo oppression are seemingly similar to the US- they have their own economic and social interests in the region. Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with GDP growth of 7.7% in 2018 and 9% in 2019. The UK invest £300 million of aid into Ethiopia’s development annually, and this would most likely be criticised or undermined by an increase in public pressure for the UK to address the social issues in Ethiopia and the short-comings of their government.

We also see a severe lack of media attention to this ongoing crisis. In part, this is because of Ethiopia’s strict restrictions on media reporting and the difficulties journalists face with reporting in the region.

Without the pressure of the world leaning on them, and while they continue to receive support economically and in the media from powerful, respected countries, why would the Ethiopian government change?

What has/can be done?

In mid-January of 2016, the government claimed to have ‘cancelled’ the Master Plan for the expansion of Addis Ababa, but despite this they don’t seem to have changed their approach, for example as they’re still marketing the land to investors. With or without the plan, the forced displacement of farmers from their land is likely to continue here as it has in many other parts of Ethiopia unless the government changed its approach to development at the expense of the Oromos. They would have to treat communities as genuine partners in the development process, consult with them, and be prepared to hear, take on and execute any ideas they have for development. It should also mean opening up space for peaceful dissent and political opposition, as well as a space for independent media to operate here without harassment.

However, given the awful human rights record of the government, it seems improbable without more pressure from the global community. Countries like the UK and US who have interests in the region shouldn’t be sacrificing the local people and communities simply to further their own economic, social and political gains in the country. As writer David Mepham said, we need to “press the Ethiopians to pursue a development strategy that respects human rights, rather than tramples all over them”

Spread the word, start conversations with your friends and family, and use your voice/ platform to spark the concern that the Oromo people and their cause need to incite change. Write to your local MP, start a petition, share this article, or think of your own way to help the Oromos.

For more detail into the abhorrent behaviour of the Ethiopian security forces and their treatment of the Oromo people, I recommend this article from Amnesty International:

And for more information about the historical oppression of the Oromo people I recommend this article. It’s really interesting and clear and provides good context and background to this article that I couldn’t fit in:

Thank you for taking the time to read and thank you all for your support. Please continue to spread the word about the #MOREmovement and as always, if you have any other bits of information you wish to share, or want to suggest a topic for me to cover, feel free to contact me via the email account.

We all need to DO MORE and LISTEN MORE to the struggles of our brothers and sisters globally- in this case, the Oromos.

N x

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