<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Political Competition in Oromia

To understand the context in which the 2005 election is taking place in Oromia—and the underlying causes of the patterns of political repression and human rights abuses documented in this report—it is necessary to understand the history of the competition for political control of Oromia.

Historical Background

Oromia is the largest and most populous of Ethiopia’s nine regional states. It sprawls over 32 percent of the country’s total land area and is home to at least 23 million people.4  Oromia surrounds the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, and divides Ethiopia’s southwestern states5 from the rest of the country.  While Oromia’s population is ethnically diverse, the overwhelming majority of people who reside there are ethnic Oromo.6  The Oromo population is quite diverse in terms of history, religion and other factors, but the group shares a common language, Afan Oromo and a strong and distinct sense of ethnic and national identity.

Oromo nationalism has evolved in response to the Oromo people’s long, difficult and often antagonistic relationship with the Ethiopian state.  Much of what is now Oromia was conquered and forcibly incorporated into the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian empire towards the end of the nineteenth century.  During the old imperial era, the Oromo people were subjected to widespread repression.  The rulers in Addis Ababa adopted a policy of forced cultural assimilation and they took steps to suppress Oromo culture, including restricting the use and development of Afan Oromo.7  Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian emperor, was overthrown by the military in 1974.  But the “Derg,” the committee of military officers who seized control of the country, quickly evolved into an extremely brutal dictatorship that continued the oppression of the Oromo.8 

In 1991, after a long civil war, the Derg collapsed.  The political vacuum that was created by the Derg’s collapse was immediately filled by the TPLF-controlled Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, which has remained in power through the present day.  The TPLF, led by Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s current prime minister, gained control in Addis Ababa despite its humble origins as a narrowly based, ethnic guerilla movement with little support outside of the northern highlands.  A major reason it was able to do so was the lack of strong potential rivals in much of the South and the respect it had earned by driving the Derg from power.  But equally important was the TPLF’s ability to include within the EPRDF groups claiming to represent different regions and ethnicities9; and its enunciation of a new “ethnic federalist” vision of the Ethiopian state.  

Ethiopia and Oromia under EPRDF Rule

Ethnic federalism promised, for the first time in Ethiopia’s long history, to respect the country’s incredible cultural diversity and give meaningful autonomy to its different ethnic groups.  A new constitution was adopted in 1994 that divided Ethiopia into regions drawn roughly along ethnic lines. 

Under the new dispensation, the largest region by far was Oromia, a vast territory that had never before been governed as a single unit.  One third of the seats in the national legislature are allocated to Oromia.  In contrast, the TPLF’s home region, Tigray, commands only seven percent of the seats in parliament.  Thus, the TPLF’s ability to remain in control in Addis Ababa depends entirely on the ability of its EPRDF allies in other regions, especially Oromia, to maintain regional political control.  

In Oromia, the TPLF’s regional ally is the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), which was created in 1990, as the Derg began to collapse.  The OPDO was created outside of Oromia without any grassroots political participation.10  Thus, it started with very little popular support in Oromia.  Its only real assets were the complete backing it received from the TPLF and a hope that the Oromo population, grateful for the role the EPRDF had played in liberating Oromia from the Derg, would rally behind its flag.11

The Oromo Liberation Front

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) had its origins in a protracted armed struggle in Oromia against the Haile Selassie government in the 1960s.12  Thus, long before the OPDO was created in Tigray, the OLF had established itself as the leading voice of Oromo nationalism.  By 1991, when the Derg collapsed, it enjoyed widespread popular support in much of the region and its leaders had longstanding ties to Oromo civil society.13  In the later years of the struggle against the Derg, the OLF forged a loose alliance with the TPLF, but the two organizations were never formally affiliated and each regarded the other with suspicion—and the TPLF’s decision to create the OPDO exacerbated tensions between the two groups.14

The Struggle for Political Control in Oromia during the Transition

In 1991, the OLF joined the TPLF-led transitional government and continued to administer an area around Dembi Dollo in Western Wollega, which it had controlled in the final days of the war.  National elections were scheduled for June 1992.  In Oromia, the contest pitted the OPDO against the OLF.  The run-up to election day was marred by widespread violence and harassment.  OLF candidates were intimidated and prevented from campaigning effectively in most of Oromia, while, in the small area that was under OLF control, OPDO officials faced similar intimidation and restrictions.15 

After the OLF became convinced that it would not be allowed to compete fairly in the election, it withdrew from the race.16  Relations between the OLF and EPRDF quickly degenerated into open conflict, and OLF ministers who had been serving in the transitional government withdrew and left the country.  The result was complete disaster for the OLF.  EPRDF military forces captured thousands of OLF fighters within the space of a few weeks and drove the OLF administration in Dembi Dollo out of the country.17  Virtually overnight, it was almost entirely neutralized as a military force and excluded from the political process. 

After the OLF’s departure, no other substantial party emerged in Oromia to challenge the OPDO.  The OPDO currently controls 172 out of Oromia’s 179 seats in the House of People’s Representatives, Ethiopia’s national legislature.18  The OPDO’s dominance is equally overwhelming at the local level.  From top to bottom, the OPDO has had a near-total monopoly on political power in Oromia since 1992.

Despite its defeat on the ground and long absence from the political scene, the OLF has retained its status as the most potent symbol of Oromo nationalism and continues in many ways to be the central focus of political discourse in Oromia.  Since 1992, the OLF has waged what it calls an “armed struggle” against the EPRDF government; and in recent years, it has accepted military training and assistance from Eritrea.19  The OLF has occasionally managed to infiltrate fighters into Ethiopia and it has been blamed by EPRDF officials for a number of terrorist attacks throughout the country.20  But the OLF’s military adventures proved largely ineffectual, and few—if any—observers regard it as a serious military threat to the Ethiopian government.21  Nevertheless, the OPDO has used the specter of an ongoing OLF “armed struggle” to justify the widespread repression that is described in this report.  Regional government and security officials routinely accuse dissidents, critics and students of being OLF “terrorists” or insurgents. Thousands of Oromo from all walks of life have been targeted for arbitrary detention, torture and other abuses even when there has been no evidence linking them to the OLF.  Even some apolitical civil society organizations have been treated as subversive threats to the regime, hampering their ability to operate effectively.22 

Thus, the OLF and the OPDO are engaged in a tragic charade:  The OLF pretends to be waging the kind of armed struggle that Meles Zenawi and the TPLF fought to bring down the Derg.  The OPDO and the TPLF/EPRDF use the OLF’s quixotic guerrilla campaign to justify political repression.  And the people of Oromia suffer from both sides’ pretentions.

The May 2005 Elections

The only Oromo parties of any real strength contesting the May 2005 elections are the Oromo National Congress (ONC), which until recently has not attempted to build a permanent base of support outside its leader’s home region in Ambo woreda, and the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement (OFDM), which only emerged in mid-2004.23 Both parties claim that they will field candidates in a large proportion of Oromia’s electoral constituencies and expect to win some seats, but neither is likely to pose a serious threat to the OPDO’s regional political monopoly.  One indication of the lack of genuine political competition in this year’s election is that, as of March, when Human Rights Watch visited the area, there were no signs of any opposition presence or campaigning in rural areas outside of Ambo woreda.  In addition, many of the individuals Human Rights Watch interviewed did not know whether any opposition parties were running in their constituencies, or what opposition parties existed in Oromia.  

[4] This estimate is based on a projection made by the 1994 National Census.  This estimate is not without controversy, as many Oromo argue that the region’s true population is substantially higher than this.  It is also worth noting that there are substantial Oromo populations in other parts of Ethiopia, and the country’s total Oromo population likely exceeds 27 million.

[5] Namely, Gambella and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State.

[6] According to the 1994 national census, ethnic Oromo make up 85 percent of Oromia’s total population.

[7] The Imperial government maintained control over this vast territory through a highly repressive system of governance that granted power at the local level to large numbers of armed, non-Oromo settlers generally referred to as neftegna (which translates as “rifleman.”) Because the Oromo constituted such a large proportion of the Ethiopian population after their incorporation into the state, Imperial authorities treated any expression of Oromo national consciousness as a potential threat to the territorial integrity of the empire and the continued dominance of its ruling Amhara elite.  Many Oromo regard their absorption into the Ethiopian state as a form of colonial conquest.  See, e.g., Mekuria Bulcha, Survival and Reconstruction of National Identity, in P.T.W. Baxter, et. al, eds., Being and Becoming Oromo: Historical and Anthropological Inquiries (Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1996).

[8] “Derg” means “committee” in Amharic.  This appellation refers to the committee of military officers who led the government when it seized power.

[9] The EPRDF’s members are the TPLF; the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), which governs Oromia; the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), which governs Amhara region; and the Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Front (SEPDF), which administers the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR).  The TPLF has also created satellite parties in the country’s other regions, but they are not full members of the EPRDF.

[10] Most of the OPDO’s initial membership consisted of Oromo POWs who had been fighting for the Derg and who were captured by the TPLF and recruited into the OPDO while in captivity.

[11] Human Rights Watch interviews with former OPDO officials, Addis Ababa, March 2005.

[12] In fact, the OLF’s exact origins are a matter of some controversy, but some trace the organization’s roots back to a long armed struggle waged against Imperial rule throughout the Bale region of Oromia from roughly 1963-68.  The Bale revolt remains a potent symbol of Oromo nationalism and the struggle for self-determination.

[13] Perhaps most importantly, much of the OLF’s leadership had been involved with the Mecha-Tulema Association, the first Oromo civil society organization and an organization widely credited with helping to revive and nurture a sense of nationalism among Ethiopia’s educated Oromo elite. The OLF also had strong ties with the Mekene Yesus Church, the largest and most influential Protestant Church in Ethiopia.

[14] Many within the OLF’s leadership viewed the TPLF’s creation of the OPDO as a hostile act, as it seemed to indicate that the country’s new rulers had no desire to maintain a lasting alliance with the OLF.  On the other hand, many within the TPLF believed that the OLF was intent on destroying the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state by pressing for an independent Oromia.

[15] See Siegfried Pausewang, et. al., Ethiopia Since the Derg: A Decade of Democratic Pretension and Performance (London: Zed Books, 2002) at 30-32; National Democratic Institute, An Evaluation of the June 21, 1992 Elections in Ethiopia, (Washington: National Democratic Institute, 1992).

[16] Human Rights Watch interviews with former high-ranking OLF officials, February and March 2005.

[17] Ibid.; see also Siegfried Pausewang, et. al., Ethiopia Since the Derg: A Decade of Democratic Pretension and Performance (London: Zed Books, 2002) at 30-32.

[18] The opposition Oromo National Congress (ONC) won only one seat in the HPR.  The other six non-OPDO seats went to “opposition” or “independent” candidates widely believed to be supportive of the EPRDF. Nationwide, the EPRDF and affiliated parties won 520 out of 547 seats in the House of People’s Representatives.

[19] Much of the OLF’s leadership is currently based in Asmara, Eritrea.

[20] Most recently, in 2002 the OLF reportedly managed to infiltrate fighters into Wollega from Sudan with logistical support from the Eritrean government.  Those fighters were quickly wiped out by EPRDF forces.  There have not been any confirmed clashes between OLF and EPRDF forces since, although the OLF has periodically issued claims that its forces have engaged and defeated EPRDF soldiers.  The OLF has also been blamed for a number of bomb attacks carried out against railroad installations and hotels.

[21] Human Rights Watch interviews with western diplomatic and intelligence sources and other observers, March and April 2005.

[22] Human Rights Watch interviews with Oromo civil society leaders and western diplomatic officials, Addis Ababa, Nekemte and Dembi Dollo, March 2005.

[23] Neither of these parties has any apparent link with the OLF, although OPDO officials have made such accusations in some communities.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>May 2005