EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

The two faces of minorities discrimination in Oromia, Ethiopia: De jure and de facto

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Marew Abebe Salemot
September 29, 2020

The plight of minorities in Oromia is deep rooted in the region’s constitution and its discriminatory effect on non Oromos living in the regional state.

The fact that the murder of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June 2020 was the immediate factor for the early July premeditated mass killing of 239 non Oromo minorities in Oromia region, the plight of minorities has been rooted in by denial of legal recognition of diversities in the constitution of Oromia regional state and subsequent legal proclamations.

Minority Protection under the Regional Constitutions of Ethiopia

All ten regional states of Ethiopia have heterogeneous populations and the federal constitution grants Ethiopians the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose their place of residence. The regional governments are granted to devise their own respective constitutions; keeping the premises of the federal constitution of Ethiopia. The first sentence of all regional constitutions’ preambles invariably begins with an indication of the empowered ethnic group(s). The preambles of the constitutions of Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, and Harar regions expressly mention the diverse ethnic groups empowered by, or indigenous to, the region. The Benishangul- Gumuz Constitution starts its preamble with the phrase, “We, the nationalities and peoples of the region,” and further in the preamble the ethnic groups of the region are identified as the nationalities of Berta, Gumuz, Shinasha, Mao, and Komo. Similarly, the preamble of the Gambella Constitution starts with “We, the Nationalities and Peoples of Gambella peoples’ National Regional State,” and these are in the subsequent paragraphs of the preamble identified as the nationalities of Anywaa, Nuer, Majang, Upo, and Komo. Other local minorities as well as ‘‘highlanders’’ (Amhara, Gurage, Oromo, Tigray) were left out of the local administration, not being ‘‘indigenous’’. The preamble of the Harar Constitution talks about the nations, nationalities, and peoples of the region and explicitly singles out the Harari and Oromo ethnic groups. The Southern Nation, Nationalities and Peoples’ regional state constitution, the most diversified region, has given due recognition to all ethnic groups in the region. The Amhara regional state constitution confers the region to all people living in the region. The Amhara constitution(Art.48(2)) pays attention to the position of ethnic minority groups by providing for a guaranteed representation of “minority nationalities and peoples.” It enables four regional indigenous minorities, the Agew Awi, Agew Himra, Oromo and Kemant to exercise their right to self-determination at the sub regional level. The regional Constitution of Tigray, in addition to the Tigrian people, has recognized other minority groups, i.e Irob and Kunamas Nationalities. Hence, already from the first sentence one can infer whether a given regional constitution (dis)favors the ethnic pluralism of its polity. Denying other minorities in the region, the Ethio-Somali regional state constitution, uses the formula, “We, the Somali people ”-reflecting the only one ethnic group that has been empowered by the establishment of the region.

Minorities in Oromia: An Outright De jure Discrimination

The diversified nature of the Ethiopian polity is also reflected in Oromia regional state. According to the 2007 census more than 3.2 million non Oromos are believed to reside in the Oromia region. There are close to two million Amharas, 250,000 Gedeo and Guraghe each, 53,000 Hadiya, 45,000 Dawuro, and 42,000 Kambatea and others living in Oromia regional state.

It is to be recalled also that some regional state constitutions including Oromia regional state constitution carry the clause that the ‘sovereignty’ in the region resides in the majority ethnic group or people, thus excluding the other inhabitants. Contrary to the diversified nature of the region, the constitution of the Oromia regional state both in its preamble and other provisions on sovereignty declares that ‘the Oromo nation’ is the owner of the constitution and the region Oromia, expressly excluding non Oromos residing in the regional state.

Of course, the Oromia constitution doesn’t make discrimination between the Oromos and other non Oromo residents of the region when it comes to human and democratic rights (Art.14-38), the right to property, economic, social and developmental rights (40-44) as well as political and economic objectives (Art.103-104).

Bu the holistic understanding of Oromia constitution, as an organic legal document, does not regard to the ethnic diversity of the Oromia region. Further examination of the Oromia constitution shows that there is almost complete identification of the Oromia region with the Oromo ethnic group. This identification is clear even in the preamble, which makes reference not to the population of the Oromia region, but rather to the “Oromo people.” Notwithstanding the fact that article 2(1) of the regional constitution recognises that Oromia is populated by “people of the Oromo nation and other peoples”, but article 8 stipulates that “Sovereign power in the region resides in the people of the Oromo nation.” The fact that “people of the Oromo nation” refers exclusively to people of the Oromo ethnic group can be deduced from article 39(6) of the Oromia constitution: “For the purpose of this constitution, the expression ‘the people of the Oromo nation’ shall be construed as meaning those people who speak the Oromo language, who believe in their common Oromo identity, who share a large measure of a common culture as Oromos and who predominantly inhabit in a contiguous territory of the Regional State. ” Thus, the sovereign power in Oromia does not reside in the various ethnic groups of the region, but in the Oromo ethnic group. From here it follows that the regional parliament, the Caffee, should not be perceived as the representative institution of the population of Oromia, but as the representative institution of the Oromo ethnic group. Several other elements support this conclusion. First, unlike the Amhara constitution, the Oromia constitution contains no provisions for the guaranteed representation of ethnic minority groups in the regional parliament. Second, it may be noted that the Caffee elects exclusively Oromo representatives to the federal House of the Federation. Article 39 (4) of the federal constitution stipulates that a demand for secession must be approved by the legislative council of the nation, nationality or people concerned. This provision has been included in article 39 of the Oromia constitution. Article 39 (5) of the latter constitution stipulates that the “Demand for secession is approved by a two thirds majority vote of the members of the caffee.” The legislative council of the Oromo ethnic group is thus equated with the Caffee of the Oromia region.

Nor do Oromia’s constitutional provisions on the regional executive and judicial organs contain provisions for guaranteed representation. Ethnic minority groups in Oromia have no right to territorial self-administration. The Zonal administrative level is not an ethnic-based territorial entity, but an executive organ of the regional administration. There are no express clauses for representation in regional state institutions such as the legislature, judiciary and the executive nor does the constitution provide for territorial or non-territorial autonomy to non Oromos.

In addition to the exclusionary regional constitution, the Oromia regional has also adopted the proclamation no. 116/2006 that governs urban local government of the region.  Accordingly, the situation in urban local governments where non Oromos are believed to be relatively higher in number than the rural areas is particularly worrisome. The regional state executive can reserve up to 70 percent of the city council for the Oromos (50 percent for the Oromo residents of the city and 20 percent for Oromos coming from adjacent rural kebeles) to make sure that the institutions of urban local government are dominated by the Oromos. This makes elections for urban local governments nearly meaningless. The mayor is also appointed directly by the regional state president.

False Elite Discourse               

Whilst the ‘Neftegna’ literally means gunslinger, yet the political mal-fide dog-whistle use of the term is to denigrate ethnic Amharas, Orthodox Christians and Pan-Ethiopians. The dominant misguided narratives propagated, nefetegna, has been used to attack and displace the Amhara people living in the current area demarcated as Oromia region.There was a historical state building project which expanded the imperial jurisdiction to Southern Ethiopia and later ended in late 19th C. Part of the state building, the imperial government used carrot and stick approach. The imperial soldiers (‘what Oromo call Neftegna’) were composed of [individuals] of all identities ethnic including Amharas, Oromos, Tigres, Guraghes and operative during the imperial periods until the 1974 revolution.

This was a historical development that ended in 1974 with the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie and the rise of the Dergue regime to power. Nonetheless, the term ‘neftegna’ has been deliberately connected with the Amhara peoples as a slander, with a connotation that these peoples have historically been wrongly labeled as oppressors of the other ethnic groups (particularly the Oromos). This was how the term has been articulated over the past 50 years. This is crystal clear for anyone who knows the Ethiopian political history.

Bekele Gerba, an Oromo politician, on a televised speech has ordered Oromos not to sell anything to those who cannot speak Oromiffa language (ostensibly referring Amharas living in Oromia) and an Oromo lady, one of his supporters during a political meeting held in Adama town, told the masses not to conclude marriages outside their (Oromo) ethnic groups and demand divorce for those Oromos who have already married with neftegna (refereeing Amharas). This rhetoric has a clear similitude of the ‘Apartheid Mixed Marriages Act No 55 of 1949 that prohibited marriage between people of different races in South Africa.

The Consequence of Constitutional Denial of Diversities: De facto Discrimination  

the region has constitutionally become a mono-ethnic territory, even if it is not so historically; the region cannot be shared by two or more groups. The consequence of such constitutional arrangement is that it creates a feeling that Oromia regional ‘belongs’ to the dominant ethnic group i.e., Oromo people and giving minorities a ‘settlers’ status to non Oromos with no/little role to play in the political, economic, and social life of such regions. Acrimonious conflicts and personal drama have often been the result. Not surprisingly, frequent conflicts between the Oromos and minority Amharas living in Oromia has led to loss of life and destruction of property. Bedeno, Arba Gugu, and Gara Muletta are clear examples committed in 2000. There was also the repeated expulsion of Amhara from wollega in 2000 (and later in 2005), which reportedly happened with the connivance of the local authorities. In 2002, as a result of mobilization orchestrated by local political elites, a large number of Amharas were evicted from the southwest Oromia to the Amhara region, and their quest for return remains as yet unsettled. Following the widespread protests in 2015 and 2016, the regional state declared an ‘economic revolution’ designed to address the growing Oromo ethno nationalism, perception of marginalization and increasing youth unemployment. The regional state required international and national investors to outsource some of their activities to organize youth from the regional state or face revocation of their license. They were required to give preferential treatment to the Oromo youth in terms of employment and business opportunities. Due the legal discrimination, non Oromos have not any representations what would resist such preferential treatment and defend their own peculiar interests.

The July 2020 Premeditated Attack on Non Oromos

After the constitutional denial, the repeated hate speech by party leaders, elites and by media outlets, mobs targeted and killed about 239 non Oromos, and burned down properties following the murder of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa within three days from 29June to 1July 2020.. Immediately after the Artist’s murder, violence, harassment, and intimidation followed against minorities in Oromia. Predominantly young Oromos killed members of other ethnic minorities in the region and burned property belonging to Amhara and Gurage, though the properties of Christian Oromos were also damaged. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church later revealed that 67 members of its believers were savagely killed. Ethnic-targeted attacks and killings escalated in 2019, particularly in Oromia. Following the government’s attempts to lift the security of the then activist Jawar Mohammed in October 2019, Oromo groups destroyed property and killed 86 mainly non Oromo people.

The disturbing tactics indicate ethnic cleansing, including attackers carrying a list with the names of individuals and households to target; in some areas of Oromia, federal and regional security forces did not deploy in time to protect minorities; Media Network (OMN) propagating the attacks live and gave guidance to the attackers.

OMN broadcast a series of inflammatory hate-filled messages, including calls to lock then burn the homes of Amhara and the murders were celebrated by attackers, with reports indicating that victims’ bodies were displayed in the streets.

The federal government should conduct a transparent inquiry into the atrocities in Oromia.   Oromia’s government should take measures to provide protection against any acts that constitute incitement to violence against persons or groups based on ethnic or religious discrimination, hostility or hatred.

The regional government should also make measures to respect the rights of persons belonging to minorities. This includes revising its discriminatory constitutional provisions and other similar proclamations, preventing hate speeches which are essential for peace, justice, and democracy in the region.

Marew Abebe Salemot

Marew lectures at Debark University. He has a master’s degree in Federalism Studies from Addis Ababa University and also studied at Gottingen University, Germany. Contact him at [email protected]