Over the past eight weeks, Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia, has been hit by a wave of mass protests over the expansion of the municipal boundary of the capital, Addis Ababa. The generally peaceful protests were sparked by fears the expansion will displace ethnic Oromo farmers from their land, the latest in a long list of Oromo grievances against the government.
Security forces have killed at least 140 protesters and injured many more, according to activists, in what may be the biggest crisis to hit Ethiopia since the 2005 election violence.
The crisis has taken another worrying turn: on December 23, the authorities arrested Bekele Gerba, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Oromia’s largest legally registered political party. There had been fears he would be re-arrested as the government targets prominent Oromo intellectuals who they feel have influence over the population. He was first taken to the notorious Maekalawi prison, where torture and other ill-treatment are routine. The 54-year-old foreign language professor was reportedly hospitalized shortly after his arrest but his whereabouts are now unknown, raising concerns of an enforced disappearance. Other senior OFC leaders have been arbitrarily arrested in recent weeks or are said to be under virtual house arrest.
This is not the first time Bekele has been arrested. In 2011, he was convicted under Ethiopia’s draconian counterterrorism law of being a member of the banned Oromo Liberation Front – a charge often used to silence politically engaged ethnic Oromos who oppose the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). He spent four years in prison and was only released shortly before the elections last May. The OFC ran candidates but the EPRDF coalition won all 547 parliamentary seats, a stark reflection of the unfair electoral playing field.
Bekele is deeply committed to nonviolence and has consistently advocated that the OFC participate in future elections, despite the EPRDF’s stranglehold on the political landscape.
By treating both opposition politicians and peaceful protesters with an iron fist, the government is closing off ways for Ethiopians to nonviolently express legitimate grievances. This is a dangerous trajectory that could put Ethiopia’s long-term stability at risk.
The Ethiopian government should release unjustly detained opposition figures including Bekele and rein in the excessive use of lethal force by the security forces. They should also allow people to peacefully protest and to express dissent and ensure that farmers and pastoralists are protected from arbitrary or forced displacement without consultation and adequate compensation.
These steps would be an important way to show Oromo protesters that the government is changing tack and is genuinely committed to respecting rights. Without this kind of policy shift, desperate citizens will widen their search for other options for addressing grievances.