What happened around Oromia, one of the largest states of Ethiopia, over the past four weeks took everyone by surprise. A student protest that emerged in one of the small towns of the state expanded to eventually engulf much of the region. Initially, the protest was about a Draft Master Plan envisioned to integrate the ever-growing capital of Ethiopia, Addis Abeba, with the surrounding localities, designated as Special Zones of Oromia. With time though, the demand went beyond the Master Plan and calls for a just federalism, as stated in the Constitution, surfaced.
By the account of its spatial coverage, vigour and casualties, the wave of protest marks the largest and most destructive since the post-election crisis of 2005. Despite varying accounts, with numbers ranging between 5 and 80, several individuals have died during the four-week protest popularized on social media with the hashtag #oromoprotests. The student protest escalated into a popular communal demonstration.
The whole thing was unprecedented for the ruling EPRDFite. Much as they know the flaws within the overall drafting and planning process of the Integrated Master Plan, including lack of transparency and public participation, they did not predict any of the events. This is obvious from the vivid contradictions between the official statements coming out of various agencies of the executive. Their action seemed like a knee-jerk reflex to a stimulant in the form of protest.
First, the reaction of the government was to use local and regional law enforcement to contain the protest. But that action brought no success. Then, they resorted to mobilizing the state’s communication machinery to sell the alternative story. Due largely to the lag time involved, though, that action also failed to bring calm to the sphere rocked by the series of protests. As the volatility grew, however, federal law enforcement forces got involved.
It is one thing to fail to predict public protests. But it is completely another thing to act in a thoughtful, democratic and lawful way when it happens. It is in the latter part of the play that the record of the ruling Revolutionary Democrats stands tainted with shortfalls.
By and large, there was no centralized authority to respond to the protesters. There was no consensual policy line on the Integrated Master Plan. Federal and regional authorities had separate tales about it. Various agencies of the federal and regional governments also differed in their understanding of what the protest was about.
If there was a single line being repeated by officials during the four weeks of public protest, it was that “no plan will be implemented without the will of the public.” Yet, there was no explanation on what that actually means in terms of the Integrated Master Plan and whether there are ways to enforce the promise. For many of the critics of the ruling elite and the protesting section of society, however, the line was considered another desperate pronouncement from a government shocked by the strength and scope of the protests.
It is what happened next that seems to show the core of the problem, though. As the wave of protests grew stronger, the ruling EPRDFites started to externalize the problem. Not only did they attribute the whole saga to “anti-development forces abroad,” but they blamed the protesters as “protagonists of the anti-development camp.” They even pointed to the marriage of the differing political camps abroad as evidence to the matrix of the protests. Little was there in the form of owning the problem and trying to bring systemic solutions to it.
But this line of thinking seems to overlook the flip side of the coin. By attributing the whole thing to the “anti-development forces abroad”, the line propagates that those forces have the capability to mobilize such waves of protest. Not only is this far from the truth, but it is not even close to what was actually occurring.
What was going on was largely a local issue. A bulging youth population, feeling helpless in the face of a monopolized political and economic system that seems to embrace a considerable latent inequality of privileges, took the issue of the Master Plan to the streets to express their displeasure to their leaders. The Master Plan was just one issue.
The reality on the ground across the country, and worse in Oromia, is that the youth feel hopeless. They believe that authorities are not listening to them. They largely feel marginalized. Where the state talks about development, the youth talks about inequality of opportunity.
Predominantly, the youth feel they are not benefiting from the much talked about economic growth and infrastructure expansion. Unemployment, slow vertical mobility, lack of access to services and corruption are issues they worry about.
Certainly, things are worse in Oromia. There almost is no accountability in the state structure. Mostly, things are left to the discretion of appointed officials. Justice and effective service provision are largely served for loyalists of the system. It is common to see corrupt officials getting transferred to other posts, instead of facing the powers of the law. Harassment and jailing of activists, dissidents and members of opposition political parties is prevalent.
Even for those who support the ruling EPRDF, the regional member, the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organisation (OPDO), is considered a weak player within the power circle. They act as cannon fodder for other members of the ruling coalition and hence are not able to represent their cause. In the persona of the OPDO, therefore, what the youth see is a party that lives for others.
Things would have been different had the political space been competitive. But, as it stands, all the legislative units of the government are dominated by one voice. Thus, there is no way that the concerns of the public would be rightly reflected. Worsening the case is that the state-media, which ought to serve as medium of objective public discourse, echoes the line of the ruling party and the state only.
It all means that the population, especially the youth, has been lacking the means to voice their concerns and hence they took them to the street. True, the violent element of it all is not justifiable in any way, be it legal or moral. A country that is striving to extricate much of its population, 29pc to be exact, from the clutches of absolute poverty, could not afford to lose lives and property for a cause that could have been managed if not resolved, through all sorts of peaceful means. Nonetheless, it has to be clear that hopelessness and helplessness are the driving forces behind the recent unrest.
If one takes an objective look at the problem, then, it is clear that externalization will not solve it. Neither will a political system that stands intolerant to opposition and dissent.
What it therefore takes for the EPRDFites to solve the problem sustainably, is to internalize it and open the political space for dissenting voices. They may not call for another round of elections, but they still can embrace the legitimate opposition within the political space and give them the opportunity to air their voices. This would even be more relevant in the case of politically sensitive and nationally important issues.
There is also a role for the state media in this. Instead of uttering the official line only, it could create opportunities for alternative voices. And this will contribute significantly to the public discourse.
Inherently, the future of the system under the ruling EPRDFites hugely relies on how much it learns from the past four weeks. For the sake of sustainable stability, peace and development, it would be fortunate, if it learns positively.
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