Has the world forgotten about the Oromo people and the detention of Jawar Mohammed?

While the unfolding crisis in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia has drawn international attention, conflict and tensions between the Oromo people and the Ethiopian government persist despite a lack of widespread media coverage or international action on the issue.

Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo political activist, has now been in prison for over eight months and little action has been taken to make his release a priority. Jawar was arrested in June of 2020 and charged with a host of terrorism related charges.

Many have claimed that Jawar’s arrest was politically and strategically motivated in order to suppress opposition to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed heading into the 2020 election. Jawar had previously indicated plans to run in opposition to Abiy.

The Prime Minister of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia H.E. Mr. Abiy Ahmed arrives in Sochi to take part in the Russia–Africa Summit in October 2019 Photo: Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Jawar Mohammed is one of Ethiopia’s most prominent political activists and founded the Oromia Media Network while living in exile in the United States due to political violence. His influence and network played a significant role in the protests that led to the downfall of the former government and the election of Abiy Ahmed.

However, he has since become an outspoken critic of Abiy’s, asserting that he has not lived up to his promises of transition to democracy. Jawar has also advocated for more regional autonomy for Oromia, a concept that Abiy has adamantly opposed.

While Abiy Ahmed himself is also Oromo, Jawar Mohammed has criticized him for being a poor representative of Oromo interests and acting as an authoritarian rather than as a champion of democracy.

Regarded by many as the voice of the Oromo people, Jawar Mohammed has stood by his beliefs and positions, accusing the government of targeting opposition figures like himself and telling a court in September, “I am proud to be charged with terrorism for the second time in my life.”

The suppression of Oromo and opposition party voices in Ethiopia is a genuine problem and ought to be a legitimate international concern, even if it is not being widely covered or discussed.

The Oromo people have long been at odds with the Ethiopian government. In 2015, protests broke out amongst Oromos after the government outlined plans to expand the administrative boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, into surrounding Oromia.

On June 29, 2020, Hachula Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer and musician, was murdered in Abbis Abada. Hachula was also an outspoken political activist, and his music is closely tied to the struggles and resistance efforts of the Oromo people.

Hachula’s murder triggered widespread protests and riots throughout the Oromo region as ethnic unrest continued to rise.

Jawar Mohammed responded to the killing via Facebook, saying, “They did not just kill Hachalu. They shot at the heart of the Oromo Nation, once again!!…You can kill us, all of us, you can never ever stop us!! NEVER!!”

 The aftermath of Hachula Hundessa’s murder and the riots that ensued were met by a forceful crackdown by Ethiopian security forces.

According to Human Rights Watch, the period of conflict and unrest that followed Hachula’s killing resulted in over 170 deaths and the arrest of over 9,000 people.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commision concluded in a January 1, 2021 report that some of the killings constituted crimes against humanity.

The day after Hachula’s murder, Jawar Mohammed was arrested in connection with an incident between his guards and Ethiopian police that resulted in the death of an officer. Jawar’s allies have denied that he had any involvement with the death.

“The actions of Ethiopia’s investigative authorities raise concerns that they have not moved on from past practices of arresting first, and investigating later,” said Laetita Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Ethiopia has a long history of ethnic tension and conflict, much of which the Oromo people have been involved. Despite constituting the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, there were no Oromo prime ministers until the election of Abiy Ahmed.

For many Ethiopians, particularly Oromos, the election of Abiy Ahmed was meant to represent a turning point and hope for a more optimistic future. Many expected that he would cause a shift away from autocracy and toward democracy as he had promised.

However, Abiy Ahmed has taken actions as Prime Minister that ought to be categorized as dictatorial and regressive. Rather than pursing progress, Abiy’s leadership has resulted in numerous humanitarian crises and has exacerbated ethnic tension throughout Ethiopia.

Jawar Mohammed is still in custody today. During his imprisonment, he has received some attention from U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota- where he resided for about a decade as a U.S. citizen.

The two senators sent a letter to the U.S. State Department in August and released public statements advocating for the “long overdue” release of Jawar and fellow Oromo, Misha Chiri.

“I will be standing with the Oromo community by calling on the U.S. State Department to support a peaceful resolution to the violence in Ethiopia and continuing to advocate on behalf of Misha Chiri and Jawar Mohammed,” said Senator Smith.

“I will continue to stand with the Oromo community and call on the U.S. State Department to help find a resolution that will end the violence and restore respect for human rights,” said Senator Klobuchar.

The ongoing human rights violations in the Tigray region have caused Ethiopia to be the subject of much international attention and scrutiny, with the United Nations, United States, and numerous humanitarian organizations condemning the abuses.

However, the international community must not overlook other regions of Ethiopia in doing so. Immense humanitarian crises and injustices exist throughout other regions of the country and against other ethnic groups as well. The international community has the opportunity and the prerogative to take a stand against ethnic violence and condemn political persecution in whatever form it comes.

Noah Pitcher is a global politics correspondent for Today News Africa covering the U.S. government, United Nations, African Union, and other actors involved in international developments, political controversies, and humanitarian issues.

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