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Dr. Ostebo Comments on Oromo Protests and the State of Emergency in Ethiopia

According to Terje Ǿstebǿ, Associate Professor of Religion at UF, a great deal is at stake with the recent Oromo protests and the 6-month state of emergency issued in Ethiopia on October 9th, 2016. Ǿstebǿ recently returned from a 5-day trip to the country last week.

Some brief background: Ethiopia is governed by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), initially established by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front Party (TPLF), and which is an authoritarian ruling coalition governing the ethnic federal state. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in the country, making up 34.5% of the population as of the 2007 census, while the Tigray only make up about 6% of the population. Within the Oromo territory sits the capital, Addis Ababa. In 2014, the government announced a plan to increase the size of the capital to about 20 times its current state, without any room for debate. This measure not only decreases the Oromia regional territory, but also means the displacement of farmers and others from their land.

Now, as Ǿstebǿ explains, the current protests are the result of a combination of factors in addition to the Addis Ababa “Master Plan”. At the most basic level, Ethiopia has consistently been one of the top 5 fastest growing economies among all African countries over at least the past 10 years and it has done this on the basis of massive public investments in infrastructure, rather than oil. This has generated heightened expectations for economic development among the population, yet popular perception is that only the Tigrayan is benefitting. One area in which economic funds have been put to public benefit is the building of a multitude of universities across the country. However, this also has had the adverse effect of creating a rapidly growing class of college graduates who cannot find work. Another more distant but a very significant factor is political pressure from an Oromo diaspora in what Ǿstebǿ describes as “long-distance nationalism”. A lot of dissent is thereby expressed via the internet, which the government has been cracking down on, most recently with a nation-wide shut down of social and broadcast media.

As a result of these issues, protests in both the Oromia and Amhara Regions have been widespread, mainly in the rural areas. The Ethiopian state has responded by opening fire on protesters and arresting and detaining protestors in detention camps. Current reports put the death toll at 500, though this figure is likely an underestimate given the absence of independent news reporting outside of the capital. It is also reported that at least 1,600 people have been detained. Though one American, a post-doctoral Biologist, has been killed as a result of the protests, this event is viewed as isolated and foreigners are not being targeted. Rather, protestors have burned factories, closed their businesses, and engaged in other forms of an economic boycott aimed at disrupting the flow of money to the elite and ruling party. The ongoing security situation is rapidly changing on a day-to-day basis with no clear end in sight.