The Oromo Community of Minnesota hall was packed yesterday afternoon. Twice we scooted our chairs forward to make room for the crowds at the back; our knees were pressed up against the backs of the chairs in front of us. And when community members took the microphone, we could hear a pin drop. People I spoke with said the turnout and show of unity were unprecedented. The Oromo diaspora in Minnesota was gathering together to develop strategies to show support for the student protests that have been breaking out over the past two weeks in their homeland.
Who are the Oromo people?
The Oromo people are near and dear to my heart. I learned about them first-hand when I taught social studies for English Language Learners at Minneapolis South High School. Most of my ELL students were newly arrived refugees from Ethiopia. But many bristled at being called “Ethiopians.” They identified themselves as Oromos, and their homeland was Oromia—the largest of nine federal states in Ethiopia.
The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and there are Oromos in northern Kenya and parts of Somalia as well. Oromos speak Oromiffa, or Afan Oromo, a Cushitic language that shares approximately 35% of its vocabulary with Somali. Approximately 47% of Oromos are Muslim, and a similar percentage are Christian. As a civics teacher, I was fascinated to learn that the Oromo people had a sophisticated traditional system of democratic governance called the Gadaa system.
The Oromo people have long faced persecution from the Ethiopian Government and in Ethiopian society. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to leave teaching and become a human rights lawyer was to try to play a role in stemming the systematic human rights abuses that had driven my refugee students away from their homelands. The Advocates for Human Rights highlighted some of the persecution that Oromos face in a stakeholder report for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia, which takes place tomorrow in Geneva.
Oromo students are mobilizing for change in Oromia
Last month, the Ethiopian Government announced a controversial “Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” The Ethiopian capital, which Oromos call Finfinnee, is surrounded by the state of Oromia. The Master Plan would expand the territory of Addis Ababa, annexing thousands of hectares of Oromia’s fertile agricultural lands, and then selling or leasing them to commercial agricultural enterprises.
Oromo students sounded the alarm about the Master Plan, recognizing that it would displace Oromo farmers and leave them without a livelihood or access to their traditional lands.
Students have been staging protests at 12 universities in Oromia. Last week, federal special forces opened fire on what seems to have been a peaceful student demonstration at Ambo University. The government has confirmed 11 fatalities, but people on the ground say the toll is closer to 50. The Ethiopian government asserts that the protests have been led by “anti-peace forces.”
One Oromo diasporan based in London told me that his sister fled Meda Welabu University in Oromia on Sunday after military forces took control from the local police and then began beating students. She saw one student killed.
Students in several universities have been under lock-down, ordered confined to their dormitory rooms and not allowed to leave campus. There are reports that officers come through the dorms at night and arrest people. One female student leader is being kept incommunicado, raising concerns that she is being ill-treated. At transportation check-points, officials check passengers’ identification and detain people with student IDs. Students who have fled are not allowed back on campus.
Getting the word out: The power of remote monitoring
Ethiopia has one of the most restrictive governments in the world. There are no independent local media organizations. No Ethiopian non-governmental organizations work openly on controversial human rights issues, and international human rights groups have been expelled from the country.
In these circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to safely conduct human rights monitoring on the ground. Oromos in the diaspora have expressed frustration that major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been silent about the protests.
Remote human rights monitoring is a critical tool for diaspora communities like the Oromo who want to show support for and solidarity with human rights defenders on the ground in their countries of origin. In 2009, The Advocates published a report based on a remote fact-finding project here in Minnesota called Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora. The report has been used for advocacy at the United Nations and in support of applications for asylum. In our new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, we expanded on the human rights monitoring we did with the Oromo diaspora to develop an entire chapter on remote monitoring strategies.
Oromo diaspora mobilizes to conduct remote monitoring
Over the past two weeks, the Oromo diaspora has mobilized to shine an international spotlight on the protests. Like many diaspora groups, Oromos outside of Ethiopia maintain contacts with friends and family “back home,” some of whom have been victims of police violence or have witnessed events. Through telephone calls, text messages, email, and social media, Oromos in the diaspora have their fingers on the pulse of the student protest movement in Oromia.
The Oromo diaspora has been buzzing on social media, quickly adopting the #OromoProtests hashtag to allow people around the world to follow and contribute to the remote monitoring process. People are posting photos of victims on twitter and uploading video of some of the demonstrations to YouTube. The Oromos I’ve talked to have also recommended following certain prominent Oromos on facebook and twitter who have the trust of Oromos on the ground and feed them breaking news. Ayantu Tibeso has compiled a list on facebook of ways that diasporans can support the Oromo protests and get involved in raising awareness. Paving Pathways includes an appendix on effective human rights advocacy using social media platforms, and the Oromo diaspora is deploying many of these tactics. I’ll be using one of my favorite social media strategies—live tweeting—during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia tomorrow morning.
The Oromo diaspora also has more traditional media, including the newly launched Oromia Media Network, Oromo Voice Radio, as well as diaspora blogs and news websites like Gadaa.com, Ayyantuu News Online, and O-Pride. These media have helped consolidate information into useful posts, first-hand accounts, and broadcasts for people who are unable to keep up with the flurry of activity on twitter, facebook, and YouTube. And they have started a more systematic effort to verify reports of deaths and injuries, maintaining lists of victims and connecting photos with dates and locations.
The diaspora’s efforts are beginning to get traction with mainstream media, with some initial coverage from the BBC, Voice of America, Think Africa Press, and an editorial piece in Al Jazeera America. Human Rights Watch just published a statement. A Minnesota-based radio program called Reflections of New Minnesotans just released a podcast of a show it did with two members of the Oromo diaspora talking about recent developments in Oromia.
Momentum is building, and Oromos in the diaspora are pressing mainstream media and human rights organizations to raise visibility on the issues. They’re planning protests around the world on Friday, May 9. But diasporans who want to pitch stories and lobby policymakers will need to undertake careful remote monitoring to find receptive audiences. With the restrictions on civil society in Ethiopia, reporters, lawmakers, human rights organizations outside of the country will need to work with the Oromo diaspora to verify sources and confirm reports coming out of Oromia.
This post is the first in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 2 highlights the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.
More posts in this series: