Student Protests in Ethiopia Turn Violent Again

It is alleged that security forces have killed at least seven students in a protest in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest regional state . The students had been protesting a government plan to expand the area of the capital, Addis Ababa, into the state of Oromia.

Whilst an Al Jazeera report documented seven fatalities, police authorities have confirmed at least three. Many others have been injured severely and arrested by police, described as “anti-police elements.” Five have been arrested for terrorism-related offences for their respective roles in the protests. Reports, however, are difficult to corroborate given the tight regulation of Ethiopia’s media. However, the use of live ammunition on unarmed protesters is undeniable.

Ethiopia has a long history of ethnic tensions and the Oromo have endured an entrenched marginal status. Comprising at least 35% of Ethiopia’s population, they are the single largest ethnic minority within the Horn of Africa. They are largely agriculturalists and farmers. Amnesty International has argued that thousands of Oromo people have been subjected to unlawful killings and extra-judicial arrests, often based on “their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government.”

The recent protests were in response to the perceived land-grab by the Ethiopian government of the Oromo peoples’ territories. There have been proposed plans to expand the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, into the state of Oromia, which prompted peaceful protests from university student activists. Human Rights Watch alleges that this would force thousands of Oromo farmers and residents to be displaced and evicted from their lands without adequate compensation. Many have also perceived this as an attempt by the government to wipe out the survival of the Oromo culture and language.

The government has responded, arguing the plan would be mutually beneficial for the area by enhancing cooperation between the different groups and developing Addis Ababa into a globally competitive city with adequate room for spatial growth. Government officials have attempted to justify the extreme use of force by arguing that elements within the protesters were sympathizers of terrorist organisations, such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), who call for the self-determination of the Oromo people.

Protests of this nature by the Oromo people and subsequent bloody responses by security forces occurred in April-May 2014, which saw the deaths of nine students and the arrests of hundreds more. Many protesters from those rounds of protest are still detained in jail for their roles under draconian counter-terrorism laws.

The brutality of the events cannot be denied, no matter what the statistics of injuries and fatalities may be. Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch has called for the immediate discontinuation of excessive force by Ethiopian forces against peaceful protesters, as well as establishment of an impartial inquiry into the conduct of its forces in previous, as well as current, protests – “this would be the best way for the Ethiopian government to show its concern about the deaths and injuries inflicted on the students.”