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Why Are Students in Ethiopia Protesting Against a Capital City Expansion Plan?

Students mourning at Haromaya University. Photo shared widely on social media.

Over the past two weeks, students in Ethiopia’s largest regional state, Oromia, have been protesting against a government plan to expand the area of the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia. Reports suggest security forces used violence including live ammunition to disperse crowds of peaceful demonstrators in the compounds of universities in Oromia.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least three students were killed and hundreds were injured across the region as security forces used excessive force to disperse student protesters. Other reports put the number of students killed up to ten. Although protesters are primarily university students, in some instances, high school and primary school children were also reportedly involved in intense confrontations with government forces.

At least nine students were killed by government forces in May 2014 while protesting over the same issue.

The persecution of Oromo people

The students argue that the controversial plan, known as “the Master Plan”, to expand Addis Ababa into Oromia state would result in mass evictions of farmers mostly belonging to the Oromo ethnic group.

It wouldn't be the first time the government has uprooted members of an ethnic group. Thousands of ethnic Amharas in western Ethiopia were expelled from the country's Benishangul Gumuz region in 2013 in what critics called “ethnic cleansing”.

The students have other demands such as making Oromo a federal language. Oromo, the language of the Oromo people, is the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia and the fourth largest African language. However, it is not the working language of the federal government.

According to Ethiopian Constitution, Oromia is one of the nine ethnically based and politically autonomous regional states in Ethiopia. Oromo people make up the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. However, the group has been systematically marginalized and persecuted for the last 24 years. By some estimates, there were as many as 20,000 Oromo political prisoners in Ethiopia as of March 2014.

A 2014 Amnesty International report on repression in the Oromia region noted:

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 protestors 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, killed by security services during protests, arrests and in detention.

The ruling elite of Ethiopia are mostly from the Tigray region, which is located in the northern part of the country.

Social media fills in the gaps

Even as the Ethiopian drought and impending food crisis makes a rare appearance in local—and some international—headlines, little attention is being paid to the student protests in Ethiopian media. But despite Ethiopia’s highly controlled online environment and the government’s firm grip on communications infrastructure, social media users are reporting on the issue, particularly on Facebook, with additional coverage coming from diaspora-based media.

Photo widely circulated on social media, taken from the Facebook page of Jawar Mohammed.

One Facebook user, for example, hoped for the world to hear stories of the student protesters’ inspiring actions:

The silence has truly been deafening. We need to see and hear the inspiring actions undertaken by huge numbers of ‪#‎Oromo‬ in ‪#‎Ethiopia‬. Tell their story, enable the world to be swept up in their story.Considering the complete absence of freedom to criticize the government or report opposition stories from within the country, people around the world reading about it can help greatly by doing everything possible to amplify this story.

Another Facebook user, Aga Teshome, took note of the political power of Oromo youth:

…‪#‎OromoProtests‬ a call for all oppressed people in ‪#‎Ethiopia‬ to support the ongoing protest against ‪#‎landgrabing‬

….the Oromo youth are a powerful political entity capable of shaking mountains. This powerful political entity is hell bent on exposing the [ruling party] EPRDF government’s atrocious human rights record and all round discriminatory practices.

While Desu Tefera said:

We call upon the media to investigate the conditions that these students died trying to expose and resist, to draw attention to these concerns. Oromia needs a new kind of reporting by the international media, which gives voice to the voiceless Oromo people, who for a very long time have been killed, mistreated, abused, neglected and repressed in Ethiopia. Going forward with the current plan, which ends up displacing tens of thousands of poor farmers, destroying their livelihood and depriving their identity, is a tragedy. It deserves attention. These students put their lives on the line to draw attention to the farmers’ plight.‪#‎OromoProtests‬

Although social media reports are pivotal in letting the world know about the protests, they miss a huge chunk of nuance that would help observers understand how this dispute is unfolding. Notably, the fact that the student protests combine delicate ethnic politics, urban land grabbing and Ethiopia’s diaspora community’s involvement in home country politics.

Given Ethiopia’s highly controlIed environment, one might wonder how the students managed to get organized to express their grievance in the mid of highly controlled environment. Despite the firm grip on communication infrastructure there are constant update on Facebook and Twitter about the protest.

Dubious development practices

The story is unpleasantly familiar, as students are protesting for the second time in less than two years.

In April and May 2014, the protests began in response to the government’s plan to implement the “Integrated Masterplan for Addis Ababa”. As Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is an enclave within Oromia regional state, students primarily from Oromia state accused the Ethiopian government of attempting to take over land owned by local farmers in the name of integrating adjacent Oromia towns into the sprawling city of Addis. The students further alleged that if implemented, the Masterplan would result in Addis Ababa further encroaching into the territory of Oromia. 

The government rejected the accusation, claiming that the Masterplan was intended only to facilitate the development of infrastructure such as transportation, utilities, and recreation centers.

When the protests began the students’ main demand was the complete halting of the Masterplan. In May 2014, the government did momentarily halt the plan in order to abate the protests after at least nine were killed and hundreds of ethnic Oromo students were imprisoned. But when the government decided to resume plans to implement the Masterplan in November this year resentment boiled over again, resulting in the currently two-week-old student protest leaving at least ten people dead and many injured.

Since the highly contested 2005 national election, forceful evictions and urban land grabbing have become frequent in Addis Ababa. The capital city’s rapid growth has resulted in increasing pressure to convert rural land for industrial, housing, infrastructure, or other urban use.

Diaspora-based advocates say the unrest in Oromia is just a part of the general unhappiness that prevails in the country. They accuse the government of working for the benefit of a few people at the expense of others. They even suggest that the Ethiopian government covertly encouraged informal settlement on the outskirts of Addis Ababa so that they could later find a way to intervene under the guise of rebuilding the slums and lease the land to real estate developers.

Ermias Legesse, a high profile government defector, traces the cause of the Oromo student protest to events that took place 15 years ago. In his book, “Addis Ababa: The Abandoned City”, Ermias notes that since 2000 the Addis Ababa city municipality, with the support of the federal government, enacted five different pieces of legislation to “legalize” the informal settlements, and then sold the “legalized” lands to private property developers.

Most informal settlers on the outskirts of Addis Ababa manage to establish themselves for a period of time until they are displaced by government. “Sometimes the informal settlers are given only a few days’ notices before bulldozers arrive on the scene to tear down their shabby houses and lay foundations for new investors,” Ermias said in an interview with a diaspora-based television channel.

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  • Mnenelik III

    NOW HERE WE GO AGAIN, the wide spread protests are the results the western backed TPLF dictatorship over all Ethiopians not just Oromos. The Oromo people of Ethiopia have been misguided to believe the 2nd largest group the Amhra people are their enemy. this is called Divide and concur. The policy of the ethnic minority treasonous TPLF GVT for the past 24 years . I believe the expansion of the capitol city of Ethiopia would benefit all Ethiopians, if done responsibly without evicting small farmers. The Article also talks about changing the official language of Ethiopia from “Amharic ” currently the ONLY AFRICAN LANGUAGE THAT HAVE IT”S OWN ALPHABET AND number TO a OROMIFA witch uses the Latin alphabet that is NOT Ethiopian nor African. I SEE THIS AS THE DESTRUCTION OF ETHIOPIAN CULTURE AND AFRICAN CULTURE. as long as any real Ethiopian who is proud of Africa breath the last language of African’s shouldn’t be erased from the only country that never been colonized. I pray Ethiopia get a government who will Unite the people and bring them under 1 flag. while Europe is uniting east Africa is dividing all the work of TPLF banda. look at sudan, somali Ethiopia all who have divided since the ETHIO,Eritrea war TPLF have managed to destroy east Africa by serving their western masters

    • Amanuel gebisa

      What a poor argument about the TPLF destroying east africa. Come on.. Get your brains working. i am in ethiopia, actually in haromaya university. I feel good that the hatred and animosity you are trying to spread IS NOT felt by most of the people here.. Yes people have some political and economical questions..They are smart enough not to turn to ur nationalist extremist poor ass but solve it by talking with the gov’t or in some cases peacefully protesting.

      • Oromo

        This guy is a TPLF spy. Who are you fooling. The people are sick and tired of the TPLF and its loyalists. We will dry you go your barren land to the North.

      • SABBONA

        Dear Amanuel; or who ever u are the comment by Minilik III or whoever, was a little misinterpreted, i guess, at some point like “the Article also talks about changing the official language of Ethiopia from “Amharic ” though the fact is that the demand by Oromo People is not changing the National Language but making Afan Oromo a federal language, just Minilik iii need to refer the documents for the difference but You, declaring that u are at Haramaya University,, are just covering your ass for the fear TPLF and I bet you are watching students having nutting but their pen demanding for their right have been biten, arrested and suspended by the TPLF soldiers and officials at your place and many has killed in different places of Oromia just for asking their right and You are telling us you could negotiate withe the killers on behalf of Oromo or what? are you going to be rewarded for this comment? I think u are a paid TPLF spy and U Sucks!!!!

      • capua

        what a response…simply magnificent…bless you

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  • Tola

    Dear Menelik III,
    Oromos are not misgiuded to believe that Amhara are enemies, but historically the Amhara elites and rulers worked to eliminate the oromos and oromo culture. if the contemporary Amhara elites believe in unity, acknowledge the history, and work on common ground. No oromo is asking for replacing Amharic with Afan oromo. you know the fact, but preferred to pesent it in a manner that mobilize your fellow radical Amharas. I advise you to read Meraras book where he described what is expected of Oromo and Amhara elites to build Ethiopia. the current state of denial will radicalize the relation

  • Chalachew

    I think you both miss one thing. Ethiopia is oromia, Ethiopia is maharashtra too. I’d amharic is the official language of Ethiopia where am amharans live, oromifa should also be the official language of ethiopia where oromos live too.
    But our friendship and brotherhood should be more than other’s effort to separate us. If amharans cannot fight foe the causes of the oromos and the oromos cannot fight for the causes of amharans, none would succeed or the fight would be too bloody and too long. There were whites who fought foe the freedom of the blacks. We have to have a moral high ground in order to win every little battle in order to win the war.
    Your little fight here is only helping the enemy.

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  • Gameda C. Megersa

    I am perplexed by humanity’s propensity to nurture self destruction. As we observe international human rights day today, Ethiopia is ridiculously becoming. a hell for any living human beings. Our basic rights as human beings are dramatically being shrunk. Horrible mass
    dehumanization is undergoing in Ethiopia.

    I was so envious of western democracy and human right values. Undoubtedly enough, I believed I believed we have a lot to learn from western virtues of democracy and human right values. You know what? I learned from western democracy of America and Europe that I even have to not beat my dog let alone humans.

    But you made me upset while you keep silent to our calls of salvation from the killings, arrests dehumanization actions of the Ethiopian tyrant government. I am wondering as to why you have become too crippled to do anything about it. I can’t believe you guys completely looked over our salvation calls to you.

    The Ethiopian government is creating massive havoc on its own people most importantly on the Oromo people and Amhara people living around Gonder. The scale of horror is widening its horizon and the country is on the verge of collapse due to confrontations between the people and government forces.

    I know it is hard to understand for people living in more democratic country how difficult the situation we are now living. We are obsessed with harassments of 25 years so that we have become so desperate. I can’t really find any word to describe. what the Ethiopian tyrant government is doing. They are a lot like the Nazis and Fascists of the 21st century.

    I don’t really know why you keep Ethiopian rulers on power, then? Haven’t you ever known the taste of freedom and democracy? Where is the concern and care for all human beings regardless of time and space, race and color? Have you never heard our appeal to stop the despots from killing innocent citizens who are demanding their rights? Land is crucial you know to the Oromo people and to all Ethiopians as well for that matter. Don’t you believe me if I tell you that people got killed because only they have voiced and demonstrated peacefully for their own lands, which their umbilical cord was buried, from being taken away by the government?

    I feel as if we are being killed by massive aid you are sending out to the Ethiopian regime. If it were not for you-the Americans and Europeans-do you think the regime would have the muscle to commit atrocities and abuse human rights? who the hell are the EPRDF blood suckers funding to conduct terror against its own people in the name of fighting terrorism? While others supply ammunition, some of you offer massive amount of cash in the name of development. All are good for nothing.. it has not brought us anything good democracy and development.. but we spared out of it mass execution..

    Hello brothers, activists, human right groups, international media houses and the international community as whole.

    Hello the United Nations, European Union, African Union, United States, Great Britain, France and Germany

    We call on you to help us..there is nothing more shame than supporting tyrant regime oppressing and killing its own people. It shows the utter bankrupt morality of western democracy. I urge you to please stop trading with TPLF minority conglomerate building regime at the expense of displacing the Oromo farmers. Please, stand by us the oppressed people of Oromo. Please, stop the TPLF from killing of us the Ethiopian people.

  • Pingback: Violent clashes in Ethiopia over ‘master plan’ to expand Addis | Enjeux énergies et environnement()

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