What has tribalism to do with people’s demand for basic rights? A Reply to Dr. Desta Andargie
By Urgessa Tura
December 17, 2015

Two days ago, Dr. Desta Andargie wrote a painfully provocative opinion piece lambasting the ongoing Oromo protest as a ‘projection of a narrow ethnic question….. a pure tribal issue’. In this brief reply, I aim to do two things: a) show that a scholar’s task is seeking truth, not advocacy for those who abuse the public office they hold; and b) provide a true account of Oromo protestors’ demands as opposed to Desta’s disingenuous portrayal of the ongoing protest as ‘tribal issue’.

I believe a scholar’s central task is the pursuit of truth via excavating the relevant facts to the issue at hand, and presenting a thorough and objective analysis of the issue irrespective of whether the outcome of such an analysis goes against one’s ideological commitments or political beliefs. The task of seeking truth (and justice) is, even, more indispensable when it comes to lawyers. Dr. Desta Andargie, a distinguished member of the 2001 class of Addis Ababa University Law School, should know better that

the outstanding lawyer – the one who serves as a model for the rest – is not simply an accomplished technician but a person of prudence and practical wisdom as well….. [Technical proficiency in law is one thing but] attainment of a wisdom that lies beyond technique – a wisdom about human beings and their tangled affairs…. [is completely another thing]. (Anthony T. Kronman, The lost lawyer: Failing ideals of the legal profession. Harvard University Press, 1995).

I have no doubt that Dr. Desta is among few distinguished Ethiopian lawyers. Nonetheless, his insensitive characterization of the ongoing Oromo protest as mere tribalism is a disgrace to the fledgling Ethiopian legal community for two reasons. First, his negative portrayal of the Oromo protest is neither based on a careful diagnosis of the demands of the protestors nor corroborated by facts transpiring on the ground as we speak.  He did not even care to passingly articulate the questions of the protestors. But he rushed to criticize those that demonstrated their solidarity with the protesters, lambasting them for siding with tribalists while espousing Ethiopian unity. Second, he falsely accused the Oromo protestors for what they did not claim, or for what they did not stand for:

  1. That ‘the protestors are not prepared to accept the expansion of Addis Ababa’s municipal boundary no matter how transparent the process is’;
  2. That the protestors view connecting Addis Ababa with neighboring Oromia towns through infrastructural development as ‘cultural genocide’;
  3. That ‘the protestors are not for human rights’ because ‘these protestors wouldn’t have problems if the rights of non-Oromo speakers living in Oromia were at stake’; and
  4. That the protestors claim they are entitled to a ‘particular Oromo land’ and forcefully object the powers of government to expropriate land for public use (eminent domain).

To be sure, all these allegations are arbitrary assertions that do not in any credible manner represent what the people are demanding in the current protest. They are assumptions inseparably tied to the urban elite who want to perpetuate a tributary political economy that exploits the countryside and evicts the peasantry willy-nilly in the name of modernization and development.

What are the people’s demand?

The people are sick and tired of extractive political and economic institutions. In the last two decades alone, the neighboring farming communities of Addis lost thousands of hectares of fertile land to urban as well as industrial expansion.  They did not benefit proportionately from this development dividend. As a result of such massive eviction in the name of development and rapid population growth, landlessness is becoming a salient feature of the Ethiopian rural economy. And in an agrarian economy, land is a vital asset, a means of livelihood and a life line for most rural residents. If you take away their last line of life from them willy-nilly, nothing less than a killing destitution awaits them precisely because off-farm employment opportunities are very limited in Ethiopia as the industrial and service sectors are in an abysmally very low state. More, specifically, the people are demanding from both the regional and federal government:

  1. To stop arbitrary eviction of farmers from their land without prompt and adequate compensation. Does this amount to objecting the natural growth and expansion of the Addis metropolis? Surely no. But in such a natural growth and expansion of Addis the people want the state to stop picking winners and losers willy-nilly: meaning ceding land to the rich and powerful through corrupt and non-transparent deals while leaving the surrounding poor farmers to their own devices with nominal compensation.
  2. To cease top-down development programing such as the integrated Addis masterplan without prior consultation of those farmers whose interests are most affected by the plan. Put differently, what the protestors are simply asking for is that the government must show equal concern for the interests of surrounding farming communities in the urban development policies it pursues. They are asking the government not to discount the interests of the poor farmers in its Addis expansion project precisely because the political principle of equality requires showing equal concern and respect for the interests of all citizens irrespective of their social origin, wealth or status.
  3. To respect usufruct right over their farmland for life as enshrined in the laws of the land. But this doesn’t mean the people are against the government’s power to expropriate land for public use in the strict sense of the term. Expropriation should only be undertaken through a fair process guaranteed by rule of law and prompt and adequate compensation in advance. Usufruct right over land is a property right. The fact that bare ownership of both rural and urban land is vested in the state does not make the farmers’ claim to property over their farmland ridiculous as Dr. Desta seems to mistakenly believe. Property right is a bundle of rights; primacy of ownership in property theory doesn’t make much sense in Ethiopia where collective rights are sanctioned by law.
  4. To desist from killing, maiming, detaining and violating the fundamental rights of Oromo protestors for exercising their inalienable natural right to hold government accountable for injurious policies. Let alone petitioning government to correct injurious policies, the people have a right to abolish the government if the latter resorts to tyranny as a permanent method of governance.

To sum up, opposition to the ill-conceived Addis masterplan that discounts the interests of the Oromo farmers is the immediate trigger for the current popular dissatisfaction that has boiled to the surface. But there are other underlying deep-seated causal factors ranging from joblessness of the youth graduating from the proliferating Ethiopian universities and colleges to rampant poverty, corruption and rising cost of living. Whatever the underlying causes are, one thing is certain: the protest is not about tribalism: it is about economic rights; it is about social rights, it is about political rights; it is about seeing government of the people in Ethiopia. In short, it is an organic, peaceful and democratic movement. Therefore, it is pragmatic as well as morally sensible to show solidarity with the protestors and desist from mischaracterizing them as tribalists. Esteemed Ethiopians, like Dr.  Desta, can play a positive role in adding a deeper democratic agenda to the ongoing protest in such a way that Prof. Messay Kebede has done recently. Unless all of us who are against the status quo stop fault finding on each other  and being solely focused on pursuing the battle for democratic government,  the future of our country – Ethiopia – would be bleak.

I can be reached at ugonu2008@gmail.com for comments.

Ethiomedia.com - An African-American news and views website.
Copyright 2013 Ethiomedia.com.
Email: editor@ethiomedia.com