On a warm sunny day and windy evening, Oromo nationalist songs could be heard at some bars, shops and cafes in the small lakeside town of Bishoftu.
The multicultural town, located 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, is a ‘spiritual home’ of the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group which makes up around 40 percent of its population.
Every year on Oct. 1, hundreds of thousands of Oromo people descend on Bishoftu and gather at a sacred lake to mark Irreecha, a religious festival of thanksgiving.
But 2016 marked a turning point.
That year, the festival turned into an anti-government protest which ended in a stampede that killed at least 52 people. It triggered waves of violent anti-government protests in the Oromia region which had continued on and off through much of the year and 2017.
During this period, similar protests took place in the Amhara region, and hundreds lost their lives while properties worth millions of dollars were destroyed in both regions.
‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights’
It was 8 o’clock. Ear-piercing music was pulsating from a small crowded bar in Bishoftu. Many young people at the bar were speaking in Afaan Oromo, the language of the Oromo ethnic group. Others communicated in the national language, Amharic.
The bar attendant played a fiery Oromo nationalist political song by popular singer Hachalu Hundessa. The youngsters erupted in cheers and began dancing and singing along. Then came another Oromo political song. It was an exuberant moment.
In essence, the songs are the Oromo versions of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley’s “Get up, Stand Up’’, which is widely regarded as an international human rights anthem.
A young man who goes by the name Gudina told Anadolu Agency that young people in Bishoftu and other towns in the regional state of Oromia also listen to these songs on their mobile phones and laptops.
“They unify and motivate the youth-led Oromo anti-government protests,’’ he said.
“It is a movement for justice and equality in the Ethiopian federal system.’’
The Oromos, who have complained of political and economic marginalization for years, demand ownership over the capital Addis Ababa, which they call “Finfine”.
As part of the “special interest over Addis Ababa’’ constitutionally granted to Oromia Regional State, they want to bring back original Oromo names to roads and squares. The bill was presented to parliament.
But these are not their only demands.
“We are the largest ethnic group and significantly contribute to the nation’s economy. We are demanding a rightful place, a leadership role in the federal government,” Gudina said.
He was supported by three friends, who said they had participated in the anti-government protests.
The Ethiopian federal arrangement was adopted in 1994 and comprised nine ethnically defined regional states. The system has reconstructed the age-old top-down unitary Ethiopian state and was designed to provide equality and self-rule for more than 80 ethnic groups.
Bishoftu, which went through the traumatic experience of the stampede, was largely peaceful throughout the past two years.
But according to Hailu, who identified himself as a civil servant and refused to give his last name due to personal security concerns, that peace was only masking worrisome inter-ethnic relations.
‘’There is an ominous ethnic undercurrent,” he lamented.
“We live in a peaceful multi-ethnic town, but we are increasingly divided by an ‘Us and Them’ mentality.’’
Hailu’s fears are shared by main opposition parties and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four regional parties.
Gebru Asrat, an outspoken critic of the Ethiopian government and a leading member of Medrek, one of Ethiopia’s biggest opposition coalitions, told Anadolu Agency that due to the policy of EPRDF, Ethiopia’s collective identity had been at stake.
“The ruling party has propagated ethnic identities at the expense of Ethiopian unity,” he said.
EPRDF, which has been reviewing the crisis for months, issued a statement admitting that it had focused its attention on instituting diversity which had jeopardized collective identity.
“We have agreed to urgently and in a sustainable manner fill the gap that was created” and build mutually complementary ethnic and national identities, it said.
However, Asrat has said that underplayed national unity was not the only challenge Ethiopia had faced. The main cause behind anti-government protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions and general public discontent were the “authoritarian polices’’ of the government.
“The Ethiopian federal arrangement is divested of all rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution due to the authoritarian policies of the government that had effectively crippled political pluralism,’’ he said, adding that the repressive behavior had posed an existential threat to the unity, stability and continuity of state authority.
The Ethiopian government prides itself on building one the world’s fastest-growing economies and a stable state with a stature of regional heavyweight in the volatile Horn of Africa. According to the World Bank’s 2017 Global Economic Prospects report, Ethiopia’s GDP is forecast to grow by 8.3 percent, while the global forecast stands at 2.7 percent and the growth has been a continuous two-digit acceleration since 2000.
Changes are coming
The Ethiopian ruling party had promised to address the root causes of the unrest and respond to popular demands.
In what is viewed as a response to the demands of the past two years, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on Jan. 3, 2018 announced that the government had decided to free all of its political prisoners. He also promised to shut a notorious detention center in the capital, Addis Ababa, and turn it into a museum.
“We welcome the decision,’’ said Tigistu Awelu, chairperson of the Ethiopian Unity Party.
“But as long as the anti-terrorism law remains in place, detention in a new facility will continue.’’
The government is sticking to its promises. Attorney General Getachew Ambaye said Monday that the government closed the files of 528 inmates as a first move in implementing the decision.
During the unrest, the Ethiopian government had also initiated talks with opposition parties with the aim of reforming the electoral law and introducing free and fair elections.
Mohammed Saed, spokesperson of the Government Communication Affairs Office, told Anadolu Agency that the ongoing negotiations had yielded results and would bring about wider representation for parties.
“Reform aimed at creating a vibrant media is also well underway,’’ he added.
‘We are proud of our struggle’
A few kilometers from the noisy center of Bishoftu stands a statue that was erected in memory of those who lost their lives in the stampede. It quiescently gazes at the scene of the tragedy.
For the likes of Gudina and his friends, the small statue is a symbol of sacrifices, resistance and pride.
“We are proud of our struggle, which is a part and parcel of the nation’s quest for justice and democracy. The long-awaited change will come, and we will continue to stand for it,’’ he said.