Ethiopia's Oromo Face Increased Repression (World Politics Review)
Ethiopia's Oromo Face Increased Repression
Matthew Stein | 10 Dec 2008
World Politics Review
Surrounded by unstable regimes and beset by national conflicts, the current Ethiopian government has long been preoccupied with containing any militant threat. In June, even as the country was gripped by its worst famine in 25 years, the government announced plans to increase its military budget by $50 million -- to $400 million -- just one week after appealing to the international community for assistance.
As a result, in addition to deploying troops into Somalia for the past two years, and intermittently clashing with Eritrean troops along their northern border, Ethiopia's military has also fought several internal conflicts in the Ogaden and in the less known Oromia regions.
Ethiopia's ethnic Oromo people have been in conflict with the state since they were forcibly integrated into the Amhara-dominated Ethiopian empire at the end of the 19th century. However, the arrests of at least 100 Oromos since Oct. 29, including the secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Party (OFDM), without warrant or charge is an indication that the conflict is intensifying.
The 53 Oromos still being detained by the authorities also include three human rights workers, teachers, students and successful businessmen. They have all appeared in court three times since their arrest on allegations of supporting the outlawed militant group, the Oromo Liberation Front, but have yet to be formally charged. As is common practice in Ethiopia, the court keeps extending their illegal incarceration to give the Ethiopian police and intelligence services more time to gather evidence.
At their last appearance, several detainees said they had been taken from their jail cells at Addis Ababa's Maikelawi detention center in the middle of the night and tortured.
A former Ethiopian journalist and human rights activist who endured Maikelawi for eight months, Garoma Wakessa -- now a Canadian resident -- still has trouble recounting the horrors he encountered.
"Even in Canada I have no relief," he says. "I know what's happening to those people and it's not human."
Garoma explains that because of Maikelawi's special status as an interrogation center rather than a formal prison, the use of torture to extract information is widespread. Guards use electrical cables or sticks during investigations, and interrogations are conducted in rooms with varying electricity.
"In the absolute dark room there is a possibility they will kill you because you are dangerous according to them," says Garoma.
Similar reports of abuse, often following arbitrary arrests or other forms of state suppression, have been well documented by local and international human rights groups, but fail to garner international attention in a corner of the world ravaged with bloodshed.
Instead, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has enjoyed considerable support from the Bush administration in order to counter the threat of Islamic extremism in the region. In October 2007, however, in the wake of the 2005 general elections whose bloody aftermath claimed 200 lives and amidst mounting abuses in the Ogaden region, the U.S. Congress passed the "Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act," which would withhold U.S. aid from Ethiopia unless it implements human rights reforms. The act must still be passed in the Senate and signed into law by the president.
Nevertheless, since the mass detainment of Oromos in October, the State Department has been largely mute on the subject. There have been no stern warnings, with one State Department official simply maintaining that the U.S. is supportive of reconciliation between the OLF rebels (a onetime political party) and the government.
Negotiations between 125 elders of the Oromo community and the government have been initiated in recent weeks, purportedly as a means of finding a peaceful solution.
But many Oromos argue that by continuing to arrest Oromo political leaders and scholars, the government is demonstrating it is not interested in reconciliation.
"This is a gimmick, an overture to deceive Oromo public opinion, world opinion, and portray itself as if the regime is changing," Beyan Asoba, an OLF spokesman, said from the United States.
Matthew Stein is a Canadian freelance journalist who has previously contributed to World Politics Review from Bogotá, Colombia.
Photo: An Oromo Liberation Front unit in Kenya. Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Licence).