Military helicopters circled above a crowd of thousands during a festival in Ethiopia’s Oromia region in October last. “Down, down TPLF!” one of those who assembled at Bishoftu town in Oromia shouted into a microphone, referring to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the dominant wing of Ethiopia’s ruling party. Oromia has seen violent protests, which began two years ago after complaints about evictions of farmers to make way for development projects and a lack of autonomy in an authoritarian system. Security forces fired tear gas at the crowd, triggering a stampede in which scores were crushed. Some drowned in a lake. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared emergency rule less than a week later. The same day, defence forces shot a 28-year-old Oromo farmer. Witnesses cited in a report by Ethiopia’s only rights NGO, Human Rights Council, said the farmer was shot because he protested. An Opposition party leader was arrested after he addressed the European Parliament.
Ten-months later, the ruling party has unexpectedly lifted the emergency. Most of the over 20,000 people arrested were released after “renewal training”, while over 7,000 are on trial, Defence Minister Siraj Fegessa told Parliament earlier this month. But Oromia is far from being calm. The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa has recommended avoiding an area where Oromia and Ethiopia’s Somali regions meet, where intense fighting is going on. Weeks earlier, Information Minister Negeri Lencho, an Oromo, told this reporter that almost 70,000 retailers lodged complaints over a new regional income tax law. “Most of the shops are closed where I live to protest” overvalued tax payments, said a resident of an Oromo town, 20 km from the capital.
‘Torture and murder’
The Human Rights Council published its 49-page report online, in Amharic, on May 29. A day later, the state telecom monopoly turned off internet access for almost a week. It documents 22,525 arrests, testimony from 28 former prisoners, six cases of “torture, beatings, and injuries” and 19 murders. Ex-inmates of a prison in the Amhara region, to where the protests spread, testified that prisoners were dunked in a cesspit full of urine; 250 youths were held without charge or trial; up to 100 prisoners were forced to sleep in a room of 10X4 meters; water was given only weekly; and contaminated water exposed them to contagious diseases.
In November, a 12-year-old girl from Ethiopia’s south was beaten and then taken from her house by government forces to a makeshift prison, her father testified. A heavy presence of government forces prevented the Council’s staff from moving freely, people were afraid to testify, and state organs, including police stations and federal prisons, remained deaf to the Council’s efforts at official corroboration, the report says.
The Council says what it documented violates the right to life contained in Ethiopia’s Constitution, as well as the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Convention against Torture, to which Ethiopia has acceded. The report assumes the scope and types of violations are “more than presented. It asks the ruling party to give the UN permission to investigate without restriction. Addis Ababa, however, rejects this, citing “an issue of sovereignty”. Zadig Abraha, deputy government spokesperson, said the report is “politically-motivated”. He pointed to a government-sanctioned inquiry which found that security forces took “proportionate measures in most areas”, saying 669 people were killed last year alone. The government can investigate itself, he added.
Nizar Manek is a reporter based in Addis Ababa, covering African affairs