The Ethiopian government has ruled to release 304 people from prison, 289 of whom were arrested due to “terrorist” charges. These “terrorist” actions include participating in the Oromo protests, a series of demonstrations that began three years ago. The decision to release hundreds of individuals is one aspect of a series of reforms that have been led by Abiy Ahmed, the newly appointed prime minister.
This PM is the first person of Oromo descent to hold such a position in Ethiopia, despite the fact that the Oromos are the largest ethnic group there, making up 35% of the population. His leadership is significant due to the extreme ethnically rooted oppression his people in the nation. “This is a very historic moment for Ethiopia and for the ruling coalition in the country. He is the first Oromo PM. This will pave the way for the stability and unity of the country,” stated Ahmed Adam, a researcher of African Studies at the University of London.
Initially, the protests began because of the development plans for the capital, Addis Ababa, which would have disturbed land upon which many Oromo villages exist. If these plans had succeeded, the eviction of those farmers from their land would have been inevitable. The plans were meant to extend the capital’s territory but would have taken land from people already living there. Sentiments against this expansion rose, resulting first in rallies, with the movement quickly growing to encompass a wide range of civil rights issues.
These issues involve many forms of systematic oppression, including unjust imprisonment rates, unequal education opportunities and increased surveillance of Oromo communities. The Tigrayans, which only make up about 6% of the total population, have enjoyed extreme political privileges for the past few decades. The Oromo language, the third largest in Africa, is barely taught in the Ethiopian education system where it is expected that all children learn Amharic.
Amnesty International claimed that over 5000 Oromo people had been arrested in the span of three years (2011-2014) because of opposition to the government’s actions. In 2009, the United Nations Commissioner of Human Rights wrote that hundreds of unfair extrajudicial killings of Oromos had been reported by those individuals’ active resistance group as well as over 40 disappearances.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, stepped down during the peak of the protests. He publicly stated that his leave was key in order to make space for the required reforms. On TV he explained his decision: “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”
The leadership’s reactions to the first signs of a demonstration years ago were violent, pushing the protesters to adopt an increasingly antagonistic stance and forcing the former PM to realize his role in perpetuating injustices. On October 2nd, 2016, government security forces employed tear gas and guns at Irreecha, a celebration where 2 million people were in attendance. The crowd was predominantly Oromo and while the Ethiopian authorities acknowledged the deaths of 52 individuals, reports by local news sources state that the numbers were far higher, estimating hundreds killed or injured.
Ethiopia imposed a state of emergency on October 9th, 2016, and another one in February 2018 following the stepping down of Desalegn. These declarations caused the blocking of mobile internet access, the banning of any rallies, the shutting down of news sources and the limiting of social media. No publications critiquing the leadership were permitted. This was legal under international law, based on the ruling that rights can be restricted “in times of public emergency threatening the life of the nation.” However, many countries disagreed with Ethiopia’s censorship tactics.
The Oromos plight became more accessible worldwide at the last Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when Feyisa Lilesa formed the “X” symbol as he passed the finish line in a race. This symbol defines the Oromo protests, and his action spread the message quickly across nations.
The State of Emergency status was lifted two months earlier than planned when a bill in Parliament was passed to allow it. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has released 1000 people since coming to power and of this recent group of 304, three are Kenyan. The Ethiopian government is working to improve relations with Kenya while also attempting to repair the damage inflicted upon the Oromos.
The amicable resignation of Ethiopia’s former leader, followed by the election of an Oromo Prime Minister, has vastly helped the ethnic tensions in the country. The decriminalization of protesters will hopefully allow for peaceful growth to continue and a greater awareness of inequalities to permeate elite groups.
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