The Underlying National Question in Ethiopia’s Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa’s Gesture
Feyisa Lilesa caught the world’s attention at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games when the marathoner made the gesture of crossing his arms at the marathon’s finish line in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. In subsequent interviews, Lilesa made the same gesture as a means of shedding light on the political suffering of his people, the Oromo, at the hands of the ruling regime in Ethiopia. He spoke that thousands were killed over the course of nine months alone in what has become known as “Oromo Protests.” While, international human rights organizations report that more than 500 lives were lost, some activists believe this figure instead might exceed 700. An estimated number of over 20,000 people have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands wounded and disappeared; many more are rendered landless, homeless and jobless.
Bekele Gerba, the country’s most respected leader and well-known for his encouragement of non-violent resistance ideology, was jailed for a second time for terrorism charges in 2015. In 2010, Gerba highlighted the systematic and institutional corruption underlying land policy and laws, but was later charged and sentenced to eight years on terrorism for speaking to Amnesty International researchers about the human rights situation in Ethiopia.
The Politics of Land: One of the Epicenter of Ethnic and Social Conflict in Ethiopia
Land is owned by the state in Ethiopia. More than anything else, land is the lifeblood of the people. According to Professor John Marakis, the ongoing popular protest perfectly indicates that “and remains the most valuable resource and that it is the object of perennial conflict and political controversy.”
The ongoing popular opposition finds a meaningful explanation in the regime’s land policy, laws and practices. With a disturbing rate of land deals among local and international business elites and individuals within the government’s highest echelons (that mostly take place illegally and unconstitutionally-through nepotism against the wider public interest), one can see an increasing significance of land as the major political and ideological instrument. The ongoing phenomena demonstrates, again, the weight behind Markakis’s words: “land remains the most valuable resource and that it is the object of perennial conflict and political controversy.”
The nation-wide social and political crisis was triggered following the Addis Ababa Master Plan [PDF], perceived by protesters as an attempt to remove the Oromo to areas outside of the capital of Addis Ababa (Finfinnee). The regime, even though it later dropped the plan, claimed that the its intention was to solve the dilemma in capital city’s business growth by further expanding into the Oromo territories and neighboring districts. No prior consultation, discussion, or deliberation was conducted with the Oromo people, however, though they remain the ancestral owners of the land. Given the significance of economic, political, social and identity characteristics of land in Ethiopia, it is quite fair to dub the Addis Master Plan as the highest show-case of deep-seated grievances highly rooted in policy and practice of land treatment in contemporary Ethiopia. A country with more than 85 per cent of the population’s daily livelihoods and existence are strongly attached to agriculture, in Ethiopia land will continue to be a point of contention between the people and the state, that, on the other hand, seeks to use land as a primary means of political and economic control.
Recent data from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Development shows that the regime has planned, or has already executed the plan, to lease-out “over 3 million hectares [conversion: approximately 11,580 square miles] of land” to private firms for investment in commercial agriculture. Probably, the most nauseating situation came to light in relation to the fact that the authorities never bothered to introduce or implement any form of protection mechanisms for the affected communities; rather, authorities chose to deploy a hostile land law that enabled them to facilitate dispossession and dislocation goals.
No Due Process of Law; No Fair, Prompt and Adequate Compensation
Case in point: the Federal Land Laws-Proclamation 455/2005 [PDF] and 721/2011 [PDF] (urban and rural land laws) enables the regime to arbitrarily decide the relocation of the land holders without constitutional due process, or equitable compensation. For example, Section 31(4) of Proclamation No.721/2011 authorizes the police force “to use force to take over the land.” Both pieces of legislation stipulate that the expropriation will be executed, regardless, after 90 days following a decision by the tribunal (a non-judicial ad hoc entity made up of members of the regime’s executive branch). There is no sufficient means to appeal against relocation and compensation. Further straying from due process mechanisms, according to these statutes a person can only petition the authorities regarding expropriation order after he/she has handed over or relinquished the land in question to the authorities. Given the importance of the land to the Oromo farmers and households in relation to their ancestral land in and around Addis Ababa, it is clear that these laws not only deprive individuals of fair treatment, but also that these laws are part of a systematic, harmful and violent legal framework that authorizes the government to displace and dislocate the Oromo people.
Feyisa Lilesa’s Oromo protest at the Olympics is an expression of frustration against a deeply-embedded ethnic inequality, and wealth inequality rooted in the regime’s policy and practice. The Oromo people remain the primary target and negatively impacted group of this policy under the successive regimes of the Ethiopian State. The country needs a new beginning in order to save itself from what is beholding; and, such is among the motivations behind Lilesa’s Oromo-dedicated cross-armed protest at the Olympics.
Henok G. Gabisa is legal counsel at Bekele Gerba et al International Legal Defense Project and is a Visiting Academic Fellow at Washington & Lee University School of Law, Lexington, Virginia.
Suggested citation: Henok G. Gabisa, Land as the Center of Social and Ethnic Conflict, JURIST – Professional Commentary, September 4, 2016, http://jurist.org/hotline/2016/08/henok-gabisa-ethnic-conflict.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Val Merlina, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to her at
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