Ethiopia’s Oromia region has been hit by a five-day shutdown called by the main opposition group – the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).
The OFC says it has planned the protest to run from today (August 23) till Sunday August 27. The party said the call had been heeded with businesses and transportation service muted in most parts of the region.
Local media reports that the purpose of the strike is to remember protesters who were killed during the anti-government protests last year. It is also aimed at demanding the release of political prisoners arrested during the deadly protests.
The spreading protests led to the imposition of a state of emergency in October 2016. The six-month directive was earlier this month lifted by the parliament. It lasted a total of 10-months due to a four-month renewal in April this year.
The Oromia region is experiencing its second such protest this year. The first was in July when a tax hike by the government was resisted by a similar shutdown.
The OFC’s leader, Merera Gudina, is currently in detention awaiting trial on charges of terrorism. Thousands were detained during the protests that also hit the Amhara region. The government has since reported mass releases and says others have been processed for court.
OROMIA, ETHIOPIA - JULY 18: An outside view of stores after Ethiopian craftsmen shut down their shops to protest against tax regulations in Holeta of the Oromia Regio, Ethiopia on July 18, 2017. ( Minasse Wondimu Hailu - Anadolu Agency )
By Addis Getachew
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
Thousands of businesses remained closed Thursday in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, as shopkeepers protested against a new tax.
Small business owners across the region have shuttered their premises since Monday in protest at the tax, which targets businesses with an annual turnover of up to 100,000 Ethiopian birr ($4,300).
However, protesters say the government is overestimating revenue, leading to inflated tax demands.
A grocer who spoke to Anadolu Agency on condition of anonymity for fear of government retribution said his daily sales did not exceed 500 birr ($21) but the government had assessed his revenue at 5,000 birr ($214).
Businesses are taxed between 10 and 30 percent of their net profits.
Oromia, which covers much of central and southern Ethiopia, was at the center of anti-government protests in late 2015 that led to the deaths of 669 protesters across the country.
The country has been under a state of emergency since last October.
Ethiopia, like many other sub-Saharan nations, records relatively low levels of revenue from tax. According to the World Bank, tax revenues made up 15.2 percent of Ethiopian gross domestic product in 2015.
This week’s protests have seen towns across Oromia largely closed for business.
In Ambo, 98 kilometers (60 miles) west of capital Addis Ababa, protesters damaged two state-owned vehicles last week but demonstrations have been otherwise peaceful.
Towns such as Holeta, 30 km (19 miles) west of Addis Ababa, appear deserted. “A coffee vendor like me has been asked to pay 8,000 birr [$344] in taxes,” one woman said.
However, Addisu Arega, a spokesman for the regional government, said business owners had misinterpreted the new tax system.
“People tend to mistake daily income estimation for actual tax expected of them to pay to the government,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“Businesses are required to pay 10-30 percent of net income as tax under the new regulation and that is not too much.”
Government officials have said that businesses in Oromia have been undertaxed for years.
“There are 46,500 businesses that operate without permits,” Arega said. He claimed that tax returns from the region contributed just 17 percent to local revenue and added that the government would address the complaints filed by small businesses.
Screenshot from one of Seena's viral Afan Oromo ‘resistance songs’ from the group's YouTube channel.
Seven producers and performers of a popular YouTube music video were charged in Ethiopia in late June with terrorism for producing ‘inciting’ audio-visual materials and ‘uploading them on YouTube’.
The group members were arrested in December 2016 and were held in detention without charges until last month.
Among those facing charges is Seenaa Solomon, a young female singer who critics say is a rising music talent to watch. The other detainees include the well-known songwriter, singer and music entrepreneur Elias Kiflu, two vocalists Gemechis Abera and Oliyad Bekele, and three dancers, Ifa Gemechu, Tamiru Keneni and Moebol Misganu.
This marked the second arrest for dancer Moebol Misganu, who in 2014 was arrested in connection with the students protest in Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia. He was released in 2016.
Since December 2016, Seenaa and her colleagues have been held in Maekelawi— a prison notorious for its torture practices, recounted by past prisoners. Shortly after their arrest, online activist and diaspora satellite television director Jawar Mohamed wrote:
The regime has intensified its war on Oromo artists. Almost all singers are either in jail, forced to flee or had gone underground. Studios have been closed and their properties confiscated. Seena Solomon and Elias Kiflu, the duo known for their powerfully dramatized resistance songs are the latest victims.
The contentious political environment in which these arrests have occurred has grown out of the Ethiopian government's plan to expand Addis Ababa, the country's capital. In 2014, the ruling EPRDF party announced plans to expand the capital into adjacent farm lands of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region that is primarily home to the country's largest ethnic group, the Oromo.
When the plan led to wide-scale protests and a violent government crackdown, Afan Oromo (the region's language) musicians began to rise as a visible — and audible — source of inspiration for the opposition movement. Seenaa Solomon's group produced music videos in Afan Oromo during student protests that rocked the country from 2014-2016, creating something akin to a soundtrack for the movement.
In their coverage of the group members’ arrests, state-run Fana Broadcasting Corporation reported that Seenaa and her colleagues were producing music videos, poems and interviews with government critics in collaboration with a diaspora political organization based in Australia.
According to their charge sheet, their audiovisual materials were “inciting” and “complimentary” of the student protesters and others who demonstrated between 2014 and 2016.
They are not the first musicians to face such repression. In January 2016, Hawi Tezera, another Oromo singer who comforted and inspired protesters through her songs, was imprisoned. In February 2017, Teferi Mekonen, an Oromo singer who asserted Oromo cultural identity and challenge the legitimacy of Ethiopia’s ruling party in his songs, was arrested. Hawi was later released, but Teferi's fate remains unknown.
As the visibility of political singers has risen, Ethiopian authorities have intensified their crack down on musicians whom they perceive sympathize with opposition. But this has not necessarily made the musicians less visible or less popular. Resistance music continues to flourish on YouTube. Despite the fact that its performers are in jail, the YouTube channel for Seenaa Solomon's group maintains an impressive tally of more than 3,525,996 views.
To be fair to my wife, Courtenay, it was scorching that day. And as we trudged along, filthy and exhausted (our typical condition), surrounded by rebels waging a guerrilla war in one of the hottest places on earth, Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia, we realized we had run out of water.
“Don’t be a wimp,” Courtenay hissed. “Do something.”
“Like what?” I croaked.
She stopped walking and her forehead creased, which is always a bad sign, like a horse’s ears going back.
“I don’t know!” she screamed. “But get me some [expletive] water!”
Getting chewed out by your wife, in front of several hundred dumbstruck, armed men, while on assignment, covering a war, isn’t something you typically read about in the International pages of The New York Times.
Or what about knifing through the Congolese rain forest on the back of a motorcycle, enveloped by giant trees bending over the path, smelling all the decaying leaves and rich, loamy soil, and then suddenly emerging into a sun-flooded grove full of thousands of white butterflies, wrapping the tree trunks, flickering in the air like falling snow, sticking to the shirtless backs of the men working in the grove, who were essentially wearing lab coats of delicate white insects?
These moments, among the brightest memories of my decade-plus as The Times’s correspondent in East Africa (which came to an end this week), never made it into a news story. Neither did the broader experience of plunging into this world with my spouse, Courtenay Morris, a lawyer who spent years as a Times videographer. All that happens between couples anywhere else happened out here: the quiet moments of tenderness, the rivalry, the partnership, the sharing of beauty, and yes, also the hatred — so many days Courtenay may have still loved me, but she definitely didn’t like me.
In 20 years of journalism, I’ve gotten comfortable in my role as the observer. I know how to use my job as a shield. Much of what I covered in Africa — children starving to death, right in front of me, or people bleeding to death, right in front of me — would have paralyzed me had I not compartmentalized and switched so quickly into the more detached journalism mode.
But as the years passed, I grew less comfortable being comfortable. A friend of mine once said: You should be nervous at least once a week in your job or it’s time to do something else. After investing so much of our lives telling others’ stories, the point comes when some of us reporters ask: Am I allowed to tell my story?
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying journalists are any more interesting than anyone else. But I’ve often felt that my experience chasingthe story was as interesting as the story itself, but within the confines of a traditional news article, it was difficult to convey the full power of those experiences.
So I went for it. Last month I published “Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival,” my attempt to illuminate the warring roles many of us play: spouse, parent, worker, curious traveler, person striving to grow up, with Africa as the backdrop. I tried to write from the point of view (alien to much journalism) of a three-dimensional human being moving through a beautiful but troubled world, dragging along his own baggage, literal and metaphoric, trying to connect with the people he was writing about for this newspaper and at the same time honoring the primary relationship in his life.
There was so much to unlearn. Newspaper writing is tight, skipping from detail to detail, avoiding contradictions. But, this doesn’t work when you’re writing a book. Instead, you need to open up, draw out scenes, write about complicated feelings. Otherwise, there are no characters to hold on to. And what happens when that character is you and the co-star your wife? Isn’t that a little too much information, as they say?
Perhaps. But for me, there was no separating my love for this part of the world from my love for my wife. At the end of the day, those were the two forces that made me feel less alone in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, a video that made the rounds on social media showed an Egyptian man chanting during an Oromo conference in Egypt that the Oromo will get their rights and come to power in Ethiopia.The video resulted in minor disturbances in the otherwise stable Egyptian-Ethiopian relations for a few days, with a spokesman from the Ethiopian government accusing “elements” in Egypt of financing, arming and training armed groups in Ethiopia to undermine the government.
Egyptian authorities swiftly denied all such accusations, reiterating its full support and respect of Ethiopia’s sovereignty.
Although the rift was short-lived and has since been forgotten, it is a fact that the presence of the Oromo people in Egypt has been increasing as of late.The Oromo are the single largest ethno-national group in northeast Africa. In Ethiopia, they are estimated to comprise 50 million out of the country’s total population of 100 million.
Although the Oromo group is the largest among the country’s 80 ethno-national groups, it is the most oppressed group in Ethiopia and is subjected to torture and arrests from the government for demanding their rights.
Among the Oromo community, the majority is Christian, while Muslims represent an almost equal percentage of the community. Muslims, Christians and individuals of other religions living together in harmony without any discrimination within Oromia territory.
Since the Ethiopian government decided to implement the so-called “Integrated Addis Ababa Master Plan” to expand the Ethiopian capital, which is classified as one of the capital cities witnessing the greatest growth, it started dislocating the Oromo people from their farms without giving proper compensations.
Oromo demonstrations surfaced in Ginchi – about 80 kilometers southwest of the capital – in November 2015, with the Oromo protesting against the selling of the nearby Chilimongo forest, land seizures and the ongoing evictions of Oromo farmers.
Human Rights Watch accused Ethiopian security forces of killing 400 people during the protests. The chaos from the protests resulted in the imposition of martial law in the country, which remains under effect until this moment.
Last August, the Oromo and Amhara groups – which, together, form 80% of Ethiopia’s population – protested against the government for marginalizing the two groups, depriving them of their rights and barring them from holding top positions in the country.
Clashes during the protest resulted in the death of seven protestors who were calling for the release of political prisoners, freedom of expression and an end to human rights violations.
The Ethiopian authorities’ violations against the Oromo people have pushed many of the latter to flee the country, with some of them seeking refuge in Egypt.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Egypt, there were 11,192 Ethiopian asylum seekers in Egypt as of September. The number increased noticeably after the clashes between the Oromo and the Ethiopian authorities.
“Of course there’s a significant increase in numbers of Ethiopian refugees,” Tarek Argaz, a media official at UNHCR, told Egyptian Streets. “Since a year and a half, the number of asylum seekers was around 5,000.”
“The reason behind the increased flow of Ethiopian refugees to Egypt is that the Ethiopian authorities can’t arrest us here,” said 25-year-old Abdi Boushra, Director of the Oromo Volunteering Association School in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Maadi.
Boushra says he fled Ethiopia after being detained for a year after being accused of being a member of the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed group that is outlawed by the Ethiopian government.
“You’ll be oppressed just for being an Oromo; I was a teacher and I was telling students how to protest peacefully against what our territory is facing and the violations the government made,” Boushra told Egyptian Streets.
“I got arrested for a year. Then I fled from Ethiopia to Sudan. I’m like many people who fled from Sudan to Egypt by smugglers through the desert. We paid around USD 300 to reach Egypt.”
Boushra says he spent three months in Sudan but described his time there as a “nightmare,” saying that Sudanese authorities extradite asylum seekers back to Ethiopia.
“If we went there, we will be killed,” Boushra says. “We never imagined to live in Egypt before because of the different culture and language but we come here to feel safe.”
Ashraf Melad, a lawyer and researcher on refugee affairs, described the legal situation of Ethiopian refugees in Egypt.
“The 2014 Egyptian constitution insisted to protect any asylum seeker but there’s no refugee law in Egypt. Egypt is only permitting asylum seekers to live on its land,” Melad told Egyptian Streets. “In case of committing crimes, the Minister of Foreign Affairs alerts the country of the asylum seeker who committed the crime.
“In [Sudan’s case], there’s an implicit convention between the Sudanese and Ethiopian governments of extraditing Ethiopian opposition and asylum seekers. It’s a deal which had no place in Egyptian-Ethiopian relations,” Melad added.
“The UNHCR is keen on giving each refugee his right and make sure that he deserves our help. We decreased the period for discussing the papers of people who seek asylum after they got the yellow card to live legally in Egypt from 28 months to 16 months to accept him as a refugee or not,” UNHCR’s Argaz said. “I consider this as an achievement because we have an increasing flow and a limited budget.”
Noura Mohamed, a house maid who fled from the conflict in Oromia with her 14-year-old son, resorted to smugglers to help her make her way to Egypt through Sudan, like many other Ethiopians fleeing their country.
“The [situation] in Oromia was unbearable. The security comes to arrest you in your home just for being Oromo,” Mohamed told Egyptian Streets. “The government killed my father during clashes.”
Mohamed says that, after working as a maid in Kuwait, she returned to Ethiopia, where she and her husband were detained for demonstrating “and for being an Oromo citizen in the first place.”
Mohamed was released after three months, while her husband is currently still in prison in Ethiopia.
“I wanted to bring up my only son, so I decided to flee no matter what will happen; there’s nothing worse than what we experienced,” Mohamed says.
However, she says that she is struggling in Egypt, where her monthly salary is EGP 1,500 but her rent is EGP 1,000 per month.
“The UNHCR gives me EGP 1,050 in annual expenses for my son but of course this isn’t enough,” she says.
To add to Mohamed’s woes, schools are not accessible to many asylum seekers in Egypt, making it difficult for her to secure an education for her son.
“Asylum seekers have no right to [enroll] their children in Egyptian schools; there are schools for refugees but we noticed that many Oromo children evade these schools because they’re irrelevant to their identity and language,” Boushra says.
In an attempt to address this issue, Boushra says that the community decided to establish a school to teach Oromo children the Oromo language, as well as English, Arabic and other subjects such as math and science.
“We are working in the school as volunteers and there are no fees for children,” Boushra says, adding that the school currently has 150 students but remains free of the supervision of any educational authority.
The school was established in hopes of helping the Oromo people in Egypt maintain their identity as they work to integrate themselves into the society as a whole.
While a number of Ethiopian refugees say they don’t face racism or ethnic discrimination in Egypt, seeking refuge in Egypt is not without its challenges.
Everyday, many refugees who enter Egypt illegally gather in front of the UNHCR headquarters in the 6th of October satellite city, waiting for their turn to be accepted as asylum seekers and begin integrating themselves in Egyptian society.