Statement on “COVID-19 Hate” Targeting Oromos in Ethiopia
We, the Union of Oromo Communities in Canada (UOCC), call on all freedom-loving citizens of the world to cut through the rhetoric of love in Ethiopia and understand the dire reality of hate, now reinforced by COVID-19 hate. We call on all those genuinely interested in human rights, peace and stability in Ethiopia to speak out against the current carnage because it is our silence that emboldens repressive regimes.
UOCC is a non-political, non-religious, and non-profit umbrella of Oromo community organizations in Canada. We escaped political violence in Ethiopia and organized ourselves into communities to heal from our collective trauma and to stand up for the human rights of our people in Ethiopia. For years, we protested the injustice and appealed to human rights organizations, governments, and UN bodies. In the last two years, however, even as our loved ones continued to suffer injustice in Ethiopia, we swallowed our pain and nurtured the hope that our people will finally find some respite, that elections will bring transition to a semblance of democracy – until COVID-19 hit and intensified the ongoing hate.
Many who do not understand the realities in Ethiopia ask us: Just what do Oromos want? Didn’t their leader just win the Nobel Prize? Aren’t Oromos leading Ethiopia now? Our response: Oromos did not fight injustice to replace Amhara or Tigrayan rulers by Oromos. Tens of thousands paid their dear lives fighting for freedom and democracy for all. Oromos want to build a democratic Ethiopia that reflects all its peoples, Ethiopia that is free of domination by any one group. As they continue to struggle for justice for all, however, Oromos are vilified and their truth is distorted and spin-doctored by forces of domination. So much has changed in Ethiopia but much more of old hate has also continued.
The initial sweeping changes were laudable. It must be noted, however, that the current regime is the continuation of the totalitarian regime that crushed dissent and terrorized its own citizens for 27 years. It is the same regime deeply tainted with corruption. The parliament is the same one that dishonoured the very notion of election and declared a laughable 100% win. Citizens, down to the smallest districts, still face the same corrupt officials who carried out inhuman atrocities in their communities. To date, no official has been brought to justice. What we have is the same corrupt regime that was brought to its knees in 2018 when decades of popular rage erupted into peaceful protests rocking the entire country.
The only saving grace was that an Oromo-led team came out of the regime’s rotting root, dramatically calling itself “terrorist” and publicly accepting responsibility for state sponsored terrorism of 27 long years. Not only did this team plead for forgiveness from ordinary citizens it had terrorized for decades, it also pleaded for a second chance to lead the transition to democracy, thus declaring forgiveness, love and reconciliation. As 27 years of killing, exiling, and jailing had left them without strong leadership, the risen people had no choice but to trust this team. Sadly however, in just two years, forgiveness turned into vengeance, reconciliation degenerated into perpetual conflict, and love dissolved into hate. In an incredible reversal, narratives of hate are woven and orchestrated, turning victims into perpetrators and perpetrators into victims. In a simple-minded smear campaign, justice-seeking Oromos are now being vilified as ethnonationalist extremists and terrorists.
We call upon you to see through how the Ethiopian regime has woven 27 years of its totalitarian repression into an ugly hate of Oromos in the last two years.[i] We call upon you to understand how justice-seeking Oromos continue to suffer, ironically through the hate campaign of an Oromo-led government. Below, we outline a glimpse of the atrocities, why Oromos are particularly targeted, and our call upon you for action.
The COVID-19 Hate in Ethiopia – Summary of Atrocities
While COVID-19 has evoked the coming together of people in compassion and caring kindness, it has also unleashed a “tsunami of hate” globally.[ii] As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres warns, authoritarians are weaponizing the pandemic to subvert human rights[iii] and they are rapidly spreading the virus of hate.[iv], [v] For example, Ethiopian migrants are feared as if they were the coronavirus itself and thrown out of several countries without any consideration for their safety or survival.[vi], [vii], [viii]
In Ethiopia itself, using the pandemic hate weapon effectively, the government is seizing the pandemic as an opportunity to intensify its ongoing hate and human rights violations,[ix] in what amounts to be a COVID-19 hate targeting the Oromo people.
Below are the overwhelming hate incidents since March 2020.
The Ethiopian version of COVID-19 hate is particularly unleashed against Oromos, though state-owned media and other major news networks are dead silent on the atrocities. We glean these horror stories from alternative social media, citizen journalists and our own communications with our loved ones and friends in Ethiopia. Government forces have seized the COVID-19 pandemic to intensify imprisoning on trumped up charges, beating, maiming, killing, and raping, particularly targeting young Oromos. Young people once praised as Qeerroo for their fearless struggle in the peaceful protests are now marked as enemies of the country and hunted down in the entire State of Oromia. As Bekele Gerba documents, it has now become fashionable for government forces to hunt down and murder young brothers within the same family and throw them in the same grave in Wallaggaa and Gujii zones of Oromia.[x]
Young Oromos are dragged out of their homes and killed in front of their families to crush the spirit of dissent among ordinary citizens. The brute force of state terror is particularly targeting mothers both to deliver terroristic punishment and to deter youth dissent. In one incident on May 4, 2020 in Qellem Wallaggaa, government forces murdered 8 young Oromos, including one female and burnt the grains of the community in their granaries. A younger brother whose three older brothers were among the murdered tells the horror story of the forces warning his mother that, when they come back to kill him, they will make her eat the flesh of her own son.[xi] This is not a simple threat. It reopens deep wounds in a community where vulnerable mothers have already witnessed past incidents of hate where soldiers had forced a mother to sit on the body of her murdered son to break her spirit and terrorize others.[xii]
While other countries expel Ethiopian migrants for fear of coronavirus, in Ethiopia itself, displaced and vulnerable Oromos have become easy targets for the virus of hate and malicious government-induced expulsion, persecution and intercommunal violence. Although the atrocities are rampant, here we focus on just a few examples that happened in April 2020. In Buno Bedele, Oromia Region, government forces mobilized local groups against displaced Oromos and ordered them to leave the area. They opened fire killing six people and forcing others to run for their lives. They burned down 1000 homes and more than 100, 000 quintals of grain.
[xiii] In another instigation of intercommunal violence, 7 young Wolloo Oromos in the Baatii district of Amhara Region were murdered by armed groups from Afar Region.[xiv] In yet another incident in Bosset, eastern Showa, five Karrayyuu Oromo youth were dragged out of some detention and murdered execution style, with their hands tied behind their backs. Their bodies were found in a ditch.[xv]
Within the Capital City, Finfinnee/Addis Ababa itself, police forces demolished the temporary residences of displaced Oromos and chased the defenceless people out of the areas of Bole Bulbula, Alam Gana and Bachoo. Emboldened lawless vigilantes then followed the displaced out of the city and burned down even the wobbly tarp shelters they set up. Most victims were poor women, children, and the elderly who had no one to turn to. Several of the interviewed women were with infants born in those tarp shelters.[xvi]
When the pandemic arrived in Ethiopia, over 3 million people in Wallaggaa, Oromia State, were already condemned to a major communication black out, with no access to the Internet or telephone.[xvii]The area was under illegal Martial Law where government forces were purportedly operating to root out the armed wing of Oromo Liberation Front. But, innocent civilians were taking the brunt of the atrocities. And they could not protect themselves from the pandemic because they had no access to information.
In unparalleled hate and cruelty, the government continued the blackout, despite the call against Internet shut down by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights[xviii] and the UN Special Rapporteur.[xix]The blackout continued despite the appeal by various Oromo civic and professional organizations and the urge by Human Rights Watch to lift the ban to effectively fight COVID-19.[xx] While it is common sense that access to information is a basic human right in the fight against the pandemic, hate blinded officials to disregard millions of people as expendable, and the ban continued until April 1, 2020.
With the world occupied with fighting COVID-19, the Ethiopian regime was stealing the moment to intensify its repression of Oromo philanthropists. The intimidation, harassment, assassination attempt, and banishment of the prominent Oromo philanthropist, Dinquu Dayaas in April reveals a blatant Oromo hate.[xxi] His Sodere Resort was shut down, leaving 2000 employees jobless in the face of COVID-19. The reason? Dinquu donated tents and ambulances to support the fight against COVID-19 in the areas where the regime kept under media blackout. He sheltered the desperate students expelled from universities just for being Oromos and enrolled them in his university.[xxii], [xxiii] However, the deeper reason is Oromo hate, because Dinquu is an appointed Oromo gadaa elder who honours Gadaa Elders Council. He promotes economic sustainability and cultural revival of gadaa Oromo for the 21st century.[xxiv] Dinquu’s banishment into exile is part of the regime’s long-standing policy of stunting any form of Oromo leadership.
Using the COVID-19 State of Emergency as a smokescreen, the regime also embarked on wide-spread arrest of political opponents from across Oromia, including eastern Harargee and western Arsii.[xxv], [xxvi] Intimidation, harassment, closure of offices, mass arrests of members, supporters, and sympathizers of Oromo opposition parties continued despite strong appeals by human rights organizations, including Amnesty International[xxvii] and Human Rights League of Horn of Africa.[xxviii] The Oromo Liberation Front, the Oromo Federalist Congress, and the Oromo National Party have all documented the mass arrests of their members and supporters in waves of the government’s political repression.[xxix],[xxx] For example, Lammi Benya of Oromo Liberation Front notes that over 50, 000 members and supporters are imprisoned simply because the regime feared that it will lose the elections to the OLF.[xxxi]
In its Africa response to the COVID-19 effort, International Committee of the Red Cross reports distributing soaps to 40, 000 detainees in 20 selected detention areas in Ethiopia.[xxxii]As Bekele Gerba[xxxiii]and human rights defender Yayya Bashir[xxxiv] note, however, prisons could not contain the high number of prisoners. Schools, training centers, and historical places like palaces have been turned into makeshift prisons, as the government continues to hunt down its Oromo citizens like wild animals.
To reduce the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have urged the government to reduce overcrowding by refraining from unnecessary arrests and by releasing prisoners held simply for their dissenting views.[xxxv] However, Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa reports that politically motivated mass arrest has worsened the risk of the pandemic in Oromia.[xxxvi] While the UN Secretary General urges governments to refrain from using the pandemic as a pretext to adopt repressive measures,[xxxvii] the Ethiopian regime takes just such a repressive measure to overcrowd prisons. This defies all reason, revealing only its hate for Oromos and fellow humans.
For example, on May 18, an Oromo prisoner in the infamous Qilinxo prison spoke out, exposing that the coronavirus had infected prisoners in Zone 3 of Qilino but the government had denied the prisoners any medical treatment since the lockdown. This includes many elderly Oromos with underlying conditions of hypertension and diabetes. He said 2, 600 of the prisoners are held there without charge or trial. He calls upon all human rights defenders to speak out against such state terrorism. He calls upon the Nobel Committee to review its policy and bring the Ethiopian Prime Minister to justice. We see this as Oromo hate at its ugliest, exacerbated by COVID-19 hate.
Why are Oromos Particularly targeted?
The COVID-19 hate is only the tip of the iceberg of Ethiopia’s deeper-seated and longer-standing culture of hate, injustice, and domination of its subjugated peoples, including Oromos. It aggravates the pent-up unaddressed grievances that the current regime chose to disregard in order to reinstate the old culture of hate and continue its totalitarian repression of the previous 27 years. We must make important distinctions between hate and repression because it reveals why Oromos are particularly targeted for hateful repression.
Hate: Ethiopia is created on the deep-seated hate for its own nations, nationalities and peoples. Hate worked to disparage, ridicule, and erase the identities, histories, cultures, and languages of its diverse peoples. Feudal rule of the emperors and communist rule of Derg military regime have this deep-seated hate in common. They tried to create a homogeneous Ethiopia by erasing the identities of its many peoples. But peoples’ struggle for identity continued to rock the country until the Derg was deposed.
Repression: With the former Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime, hate relented and the identities of nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia were respected for the first time in history. People took respite from being ridiculed for who they are. Disparaging identities stopped, and a broad range of people came together and created their constitution. A pact between the people and the state was created for the first time in the history of a country that had known only handed-down decrees. However, the EPRDF reneged and used the constitution as a tool for the exploitation and totalitarian repression of the very people it is meant to liberate. The regime robbed, pillaged, and sucked them dry; it jailed, tortured, and killed. But Ethiopia’s peoples continued to demand the respect of their constitution, as the blind repression continued until the regime was brought to its knees by decades of peoples’ struggles and peaceful protests of youth.
Hateful Repression: The peoples of Ethiopia erupted into a state of euphoria when the repressive EPRDF crumbled. Hope brimmed that now their grievances will be addressed, they will be appreciated for who they are, and their human rights will be respected as enshrined in their constitution. However, after some impressive initial changes, a sinister form of hateful repression set in, effectively combining the hate of previous regimes and the totalitarian repression of the EPRDF. Hateful disparaging of peoples’ identities reared its ugly head, ironically through the self-hatred of our own Nobel Laurate Oromo Prime Minister. The team spirit that brought down the regime degenerated into a strongman dictatorship.[xxxviii]
Cheering him on down this slippery slope are forces of hateful domination interested in grabbing the land and its resources from the peoples of Ethiopia, forces bent on dismantling regional states and putting Eritrea back on the map. We have no problem with people willingly coming to live together, changing the current constitution, or creating a new one that reflects the new reality. What we protest is the systematic dismantling of the peoples’ constitution via the imposition of absolutist dictatorship.
So, why are Oromos particularly targeted? To be sure, the atrocities of lawless violence are widespread, but the onslaught on Oromo identity is systematic and ruthless. Even systematic attack on identity is not limited to Oromos, as the May 1st killings, mass arrests, kidnappings, and public beatings of Sidama scholars and activists indicate.[xxxix] Oromos are targeted because they have the potential to democratize Ethiopia, and this is a menace to forces of hateful domination. Oromos are de facto the grounds and grouts holding Ethiopia together because their demographic, political economic, and geographic position embraces and holds together most peoples of Ethiopia. Oromos have the potential to unify Ethiopia on firmer and more sustainable grounds. However, the EPRDF regime, including in its current reincarnation as Prosperity Party, has a long-standing policy against Oromos, understood as minoritizing the majority by all means possible. As the most populous and resourceful region, Oromia is currently the theatre of the most cutthroat scramble for power not observed in any other region of Ethiopia.
Our call to action
The COVID-19 Oromo hate is a troubling concern fueled by complex underlying economic, political and social problems. We call upon you to particularly press the strongman Prime Minister and his ruling Prosperity Party to:
- stop the virus of Oromo hate and see Oromos not as enemies of Ethiopia but as the de facto nation-builders and the glue holding together the very fabric of Ethiopia
- stop their old repressive ways and negotiate with opposition parties to collaboratively tackle the looming dangers of COVID-19
- put the derailed transition back on track, listen to the people, address their pent-up grievances, and bring to justice the perpetrators of state terrorism
- lift the illegal Martial Law, withdraw the defence forces from among civilians, stop the killing spree of state terrorism, stop the mass arrest of opposition, and free all political prisoners
- stop torturing innocent mothers, beating innocent civilians, banishing philanthropists, instigating intercommunal violence, and displacing vulnerable communities
- stop putting themselves above the law and realize that to stop lawlessness and vigilante justice, leaders themselves must role model respect for the rule of law
- support the development of strong opposition parties rather than stunting and weakening them; realize that the healthy development of opposition is crucial for democracy