Characterizing the Oromo protests

The past few days have seen serious disturbances in remote parts of Gondar and in areas of Oromia proximate to the nation’s capital, an event which gave some the opportunity to gloat, “Look where ethnic federalism gets us!” The disturbances in Northern Gondar arose when members of the minority Kimant people clashed with Amharas over what the former insist is the failure of the Amhara authorities to meet their constitutional demands for self-administration. We are going to focus on the disturbances in Oromia, however, as these are more extensive, affect a larger population, and have a direct effect on the stability of the capital city Addis Ababa.

The immediate cause for the unrest is the government’s masterplan which protesters say aims at expanding the geographic extent of Addis Ababa by invading surrounding areas that are under the jurisdiction of the Oromia Regional State. The protesters insist the masterplan would uproot Oromo farmers. Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn told state-owned Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) on Wednesday, that the masterplan was still in the draft stages, and that it was never going to be implemented without the consent of the people it would directly affect. He even said the plans may be abandoned should they contravene the people’s wishes. On the other hand, his government maintains, the protests were instigated by the “anti-peace” and “anti-development” forces Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

We must first characterize the unrest, which some have chosen to call the Oromo protest movement, to better understand what we are dealing with, and to take a position, subsequently, as all citizens should.

Some among the supporters of the protests like Jawar Mohammed, the self-proclaimed spokesperson of the Oromo cause, insist the protests are not entirely about Addis Ababa’s expansion into Oromo lands, but also about official corruption and misrule by the ruling elite. (We will come back to Jawar in a moment.) And government officials insist: as there is in place a legal system that allows anyone to voice discontent, there is no justification for accusing the government of misrule or corruption, or any grounds for such protests. They also point to the sacrifices they incurred as a rebel movement fighting for power, signifying the great length they are willing to travel to restore order and preserve their system of government.

Truth is not an exclusive province of either side in this conflict. The protesters have a valid point about misrule and corruption. There is no denying some development has been achieved, including in the legal mechanism to oppose the government which has shown some progress compared to former times. But, there is also no denying, that millions have been marginalized in the process, that the benefits have yet to trickledown to the people.

We should have no illusions Ethiopia is a thoroughly mismanaged country; otherwise we would have been known as the Utopians, not the Ethiopians. Having said that, the fact that a handful of tricksters live in ostentatious luxury while the majority wallow in utter poverty is not true only for Ethiopia; it is the case everywhere; despite what chauvinists insist, Ethiopia is not an exception.

We must then ask, if there is no country that is completely free from mismanagement, does it then follow, that protests against such mismanagement should take nationalist forms? It is tragic when people die; it is more so when they die for narrow provincial causes. When what should be extensive humanist demands for justice are downgraded to narrow nationalist concerns, all great sacrifices become a waste. Justice is universal; and the struggle for it cannot be an exclusively national or ethnic affair; justice cannot vary along ethnic lines. That is why, notwithstanding their legitimate grievances, the protesters’ presentation of those grievances as a list of exclusionary nationalist demands antagonizes other people who probably have the same thing at heart.

Parenthetically, by nationalists, we mean all those persons or groups who, notwithstanding their nation’s actual de jure, de facto or imaginary status, elevate the ideal of their nation above the ideal of humanism. This nationalism is what transforms the land of reticent and tolerant people into the den of hungry lions. Unfortunately, most other arguments pale before the argument of identity. When it is his identity that is being debated, even the most serene Buddhist takes only a moment to break his meditation to break someone’s jaw. Who a people see themselves as is their last refuge; it is the argument that almost never fails.

Returning from this digression, we already stated the protesters have good cause; there is some right in what they are demanding. By the same token, there is some right in what the government is asserting: it is duty-bound to restore order; it is not in anyone’s interest to suffer the protests in their current nationalist or ethnic form.

These protests are not different from most in that they pit armed security with a mostly unarmed populace. Having said that, just because civilians are fighting the army or police, it does not necessarily follow that right is only on their side.

Even if the protesters win territory, unless they abandon their provincial views, they will be worse off than before. A small group of people benefit when the sacred cause of freedom and justice is profaned by nationalism – be it Ethiopian or Oromo nationalism. Name-calling achieves little, but we’re going to do it anyway: the only beneficiaries are populist windbags like Jawar Mohammed who never fail to take advantage of a disillusioned people. If you only heard his thunderous fulminations, you would think the man was commanding the protests here in Ethiopia, my apologies, Oromia when he is, in fact, leading a comfortable existence behind the Minneapolis front.

Again, the protesters have legitimate demands – we cannot emphasize that enough. However, if they are truly interested in change for the better, they should present their cause in completely different terms; the aggrieved people must articulate their demands in universal, humanist terms. Justice for all should be the demand, not justice for one ethnic group only. But protest movements never follow recommendations; they progress along their own path. And as we have shown, the current protests are progressing in the interests of a handful of implacable nationalists. That is why the movement cannot be allowed to develop its full potential in its present jingoistic form.

Of course, we recommend restraint to all sides, and especially to the government in its undertaking to calm the situation. Shooting down civilians was not heroism in 2005; it cannot be heroism now. Belligerence and saber-rattling are not the best mechanisms by which authorities can handle identity-inspired unrest. That being said, the government must bring the unrest under control before more lives and properties are destroyed; it must restore order, if possible without further escalation, without giving too many people bloody noses, but with proportional force if need be. The unrest must subside before any sensible discussion on the people’s demands can take place.

Local authorities must be prevailed upon to contain unrest in their territories; should they prove unequal for the task, there is no alternative to embedding federal forces within the ranks of local militias. Suppression with overwhelming military might is only justifiable when local authorities prove sympathetic to the unrest by either directly participating in it  or choosing to be unresponsive; or when embedding federal forces in the local militias proves insufficient to bring the disturbances under control. We hope that point will not be reached; but if it is, there is no alternative to the temporary imposition of federal authority in the contested areas, including the disarming of civilians and local militias who may have taken part in the destruction of life or property.

Discussions can begin once order is restored, not a minute before. Hopefully, the disturbances will be put down before long; the longer the state of anarchy festers, the more difficult it becomes to contain. Once peace and order are achieved, it would be incumbent on the government to address every one of the protesters’ demands. Self-criticism will do the government some good; the protests did not come out of nowhere. There are serious demands that will need to be addressed and these demands are not exclusive to those who protest at risk to themselves; they are everyone’s grievances. Individuals implicated in criminal activities must be brought to justice; it should not matter if they are protesters, soldiers, policemen, or ministers.

By way of conclusion, we recapitulate the major points: the protests resulted from the people’s heretofore unanswered demands. But since the protests have taken an increasingly dangerous and exclusionary, that is, nationalist form, they have to be put down. It is best if that is achieved with the minimum loss of life so that the grievances are henceforth settled in a peaceful way, with justice for all parties. A society that accords the maximum latitude for the expression of peaceful aspirations does not put people to death for their opinions; the government should get that by now.