This February, Central Ethiopia was brought to a standstill by protests and boycotts, the repercussions of which are still being felt this week, reports the Guardian. Divided into federal jurisdictions defined by identity, the largest region Oromia, populated by the Oromo who are the largest ethnic minority in Ethiopia, was rocked by a series of peaceful acts of civil disobedience. The protesters were demanding freedom for political prisoners, as well as agitating for a more representative and equal government that recognises the ethnic plurality of Ethiopia. The protests were so momentous that they not only brought about the release of Bekele Gerba, a prominent Oromo politician and galvanized the resignation of the then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, but they also encouraged the Ethiopian government to respond heavy-handedly, issuing a repressive state of emergency order set to last for six months.
Lurking in the shadows of these protests are the mysterious Qeerroo. A cultural concept in Oromo culture that categorizes a young bachelor, it has taken on even greater significance through Ethiopia’s turbulent history. Indeed, it has become wedded to an increasingly politically assertive youth, who, galvanized by a democratic and federal system instituted in 1994 after two successive and explicitly autocratic regimes are now making claims for increased political freedoms and improved representation from the still-repressive central government. Disillusioned Ethiopians find hope in the actions of the Qeerroo; Debela, a taxi driver from a region affected by the strikes called them “the voice of the people.” Meanwhile, local leaders of the movement are taking this support in their stride, even in the face of strident governmental opposition. One leader, speaking anonymously, summarized the ambitions and desire of these decentralized youth-focused networks: “When we are married we will retire from the Qeerroo. But we will never do that until we get our freedom.” Ethiopia’s long march to a pluralist and tolerant political future is just gaining steam.
The largely peaceful nature of the protests facilitated by the Qeerroo deserves to be feted. Civil disobedience is an incredibly difficult path to take, particularly in as fractious a political environment as Ethiopia’s. The government should heed the demands of the protesters. The greatest danger lies in the flashpoints of tension that protests create; pockets of violence have been reported, and this could be used as a justification for even greater repression by the Ethiopian government.
Ethiopia’s political history is marked by conflict, both ideologically and ethnically driven. The country has fallen victim to not one, but two authoritarian regimes – first imperial, then Communist – as well as ethnic tensions that saw the two largest minorities, the Oromo and the Amhara subordinated to the smaller Tigray in political matters. It is these overlaying factors that have animated the Qeerroo to take action. The Oromo have also claimed solidarity with the Amhara, extending their demands from ethnic self-determination to the importance of a pluralist democratic government that represents the interests and needs of all Ethiopians.
Provided the protests remain peaceful, the actions of the Qeerroo networks, in Oromia and beyond, are commendable. Peaceful resistance is necessary to any kind of political transition and is all the braver considering the measures the Qeerroo are facing from the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government faces a difficult choice. Its current trajectory, which shows a preference for repressive and autocratic methods such as mass imprisonment and suppression of dissent will only lead to violence and bloodshed. A transition to a peaceful and pluralist Ethiopian government will require difficult choices. The peaceful future of Ethiopia rests on those difficult choices.
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