When Ethiopian silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa raised his two hands over his head after crossing the line in the just concluded Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, millions all over the world watching thought it was his unique way of celebrating.
But Ethiopians knew better. Lilesa was passing a message to the world about the continued suppression, and sometimes massacre of Ethiopia’s Oromo people, the ethnic majority in the country.
Now, the Oromo have joined with the Amhara—the two make up 60 per cent of the country’s population—to protest the 25 years domination by the minority Tigray, who share kinship with the neighbouring Eritrea.
The protests begun last year against plans by the government to expand Addis Ababa city limits that could have annexed parts of Oromiya County—the biggest of the nine federal regions.
The Addis Ababa Master Plan has since been dropped but the protests that begun as a political statement by the Oromo over marginalisation, has turned into political unrest, spreading to Amhara Regional States.
There have been subsequent protests in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region and Gondar targeting governmental buildings and business.
“While the Oromo and Amhara initially had their specific reasons for protests, it is now taking another shape which is calling for a wider freedom,” said Elias Meseret, an Ethiopian journalist based in Addis Ababa.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in June accused Ethiopian security forces of gunning down more than 400 Oromo people in November last year who were protesting against the Addis Ababa expansion plan that was to take part of their land.
But Information Minister and government spokesperson, Getachew Reda, dismissed HWR saying they lacked credibility. “More often they just pluck their numbers out of thin air,” he said.
Despite recording economic growth and impressive infrastructure development, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is increasingly coming under pressure from widespread protests for the first time since the 1991 revolution that removed the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam due to land issues and human rights violations.
The government maintains that the protests are sponsored by the rebel, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) that has been fighting the government since 1973 and the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) in conjunction with dissidents in the diaspora, who are using social media to incite the people.
Addis Ababa has responded by cracking down on protesters and regularly shutting down social media to avoid the protests from spreading to other parts the country. The protests have been demanding greater freedom under the EPDRF rule.
Currently, the country has no effective opposition since the ruling EPRDF and its allies swept all 546 parliamentary seats in the June 2015 elections despite the country having close to a hundred registered political parties.
Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn (C) arrives at the Waterkloof Military air base in Pretoria on June 12, 2015 for the 25th AU Summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa. PHOTO | FILE
Diplomats in Addis Ababa attribute the build-up to the dissent in Ethiopia, which started with protests by Muslims in 2012, mainly to the growing youthful population that have no institutional memory of the 1991 revolution.
According to the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) chairman, Merera Gudina, the country is facing a youth uprising which could turn the country ungovernable if the issues affecting them are not addressed.
The youth, with 64 per cent below the age of 25, have been voting with their feet, risking dangerous voyages in rickety vessels in the Mediterranean Sea in search of better life in Europe and the United States in the face of unemployment and a repressive government that is using anti-terrorism laws to crack down against civil society and the media.
Other issues include the opaque land tenure system, the suppression of alternative view and the succession plan by the former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zinawi who died in 2012.
Kennedy Abwao, a Kenyan journalist and expert on Ethiopian affairs says the challenge is that the country has always had a coalition system where ethnic groups pick their leaders, who later negotiate for a coalition at the top.
However, according to Mr Abwao the system is getting won out since all powerful posts in the country in terms of military, police and big business are currently occupied by Tigreans, leaving less grandeur position to the rest.
Ethiopia—the second most populous country after Nigeria with 96 million people—is divided into nine regional governments which are vested with authority for self-administration.
They include: Afar, Amhara, Benishangul/Gumuz, Gambella, Harari, Oromiya, Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’, Somali and Tigray; and two chartered cities: Addis Ababa and Dire-Dawa.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who hails from the Wolayita community in the South, was positioned strategically by Mr Zinawi after he was promoted to be the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, ultimately assuming leadership in September 2012 upon his mentor’s death.