How The Oromo Protests Are Exposing Ethiopia’s Longstanding Political Vulnerabilities

Oromo Students Solidarity Protest in Washington, D.C.
Oromo Students Solidarity Protest in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of creative commons @ctj71081.

At least 40 people have been killed, hundreds wounded, and thousands detained in more than three weeks of uprisings in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, the largest of nine linguistic-based states. The Oromo people make up close to 50 percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million.

Protesters primarily oppose a draft master plan that, if implemented, will expand the jurisdiction of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia. Dozens were killed last year in similar protests when authorities first introduced the controversial Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Development Plan or the Master Plan.

The ongoing protests began last month in Ginci, a small town about 50 miles west of Addis Ababa. There, the demands were limited and benign largely centering on the ownership transfer of a local stadium and the clearing of nearby forest for development by foreign investors. The master plan formed only one piece of their demands. As usual, the authorities responded using disproportionate force—triggering a widespread outrage.

Following the protests, all public schools in Oromia have been closed. Roadblocks have brought traffic in and out of many towns to a standstill. The central government had assumed emergency powers, setting up a command post and instituting curfews in several towns. Where the security situation has deteriorated, notably in parts of Central Oromia, locals have resorted to self-defense. Beyond contentions over the master plan, the ongoing protests, whose scope and scale parallel the revolution of 1974 that toppled Africa’s longest-serving monarch, the late emperor Haile Selassie, have brought to the fore Ethiopia’s longstanding political cleavages.

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