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By Gilad Bronshtein
Last February, on the road near the southern Ethiopian town of Shashamane, a bus was carrying a newly-wed bride and her family on their way to a wedding celebration. The party goers were preparing to take part in a traditional Oromo ceremony in a nearby town. With uplifted spirits, the passengers enjoyed traditional Oromo music in anticipation of the happy occasion. The festivities came to an abrupt end when local police pulled the vehicle over and demanded that the celebrations stop. It was not the loud music or a traffic violation that provoked the police. Instead, the officers demanded that the music be turned off, forbidding any display of Oromo tradition in public. After some passengers refused to comply, the officers commenced to pursue and open fire at the vehicle. The celebration quickly turned into a tragedy when two passengers were shot and killed.
This incident is one of many that mark the oppression of traditional Oromo culture in Ethiopia. While the Oromo are among the largest of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, recent events illustrate the increasing ethnic tensions in the country. Since November last year, several Oromo demonstrations for minority rights and ethnic equality have escalated into violence when protesters clashed with local police. The Oromo have long been protesting against the violation of their rights to land ownership, the marginalization of their political and economic interests, unfair treatment by government authorities, and the suppression of the native Oromo language more than 20 years ago(1). About 250 protesters were killed in clashes with police during recent demonstrations and hundreds more were injured.
According to government spokesman Getachew Reda, the escalation in recent events is attributed to the actions of local gangs who abuse the plight of the Oromo as an opportunity to perpetrate disorder and further various subversive political and criminal interests. However, a blaming finger was also pointed at some OFC (Oromo Federal Congress) officials that were later imprisoned under the charges of inciting violence. The OFC political party has no seats in the Ethiopian parliament and the Oromo receive no political representation in Ethiopia. Jawar Muhammad, executive director of Oromia Media Network has demanded the intervention of the US and the UK in freeing these leaders and preventing further breaches of minority rights. Both superpowers provide major financial aid to the Ethiopian government and may use their influence to provide a solution to these increasing ethnic tensions.
(1) The Oromo language was recognised in 1994 as an official language, along with other minority languages in Ethiopia. However, it is still being suppressed in many areas of the country.