MN Oromos rally to protest student deaths in Ethiopia

Demonstrators at the capitol
Demonstrators demanded justice for students killed in Ethiopia at the State Capitol.
Mukhtar Ibrahim | MPR News

Hundreds of members of Minnesota's Oromo community crowded an area near the State Capitol Thursday afternoon, demanding justice for Oromo students killed in anti-government demonstrations in Ethiopia.

The demonstrators said they wanted to raise awareness about the continuing violence in Ethiopia's Oromo region, which first erupted on Nov. 12 over allegations of a government land grab.

"Stop terrorizing Oromo students," the demonstrators chanted. Some carried signs saying, "If I was protesting in Ethiopia, you would have been attending my funeral today."

Oromo activists alleged the Ethiopian government killed nearly 100 students who opposed the government's proposed development plan, which aims to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, into the Oromia region.

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St. Paul business owner Mubarek Lolo, one of the organizers of the protest, said the government is evicting students and farmers in Oromia and selling vacated land to investors.

"On top of that, they are increasing the killing and the persecution of Oromos," said Lolo, 29. "We're saying enough is enough. You can't do that to our people."

The ethnic Oromo population in Ethiopia is estimated at around 30 million, making it Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. Oromos also live in neighboring Kenya. Minnesota is home to the largest Oromo diaspora, which some community members interviewed by MPR News estimated to be between 20,000 and 40,000.

Lolo said the government on Thursday arrested Bekele Gerba, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress political party.

Gerba visited the United States last summer. He had been released a few months earlier from a maximum-security prison in Ethiopia in advance of President Obama's visit to Ethiopia in July.

"The greatest land grabbers are now the Indians and Chinese ... there are Saudi Arabians as well," Gerba told NPR in August.

"Nobody is actually sure in Ethiopia what will happen," he added. "Anytime, people can be arrested, harassed or killed or disappeared."

A young girl at the Capitol
Demonstrators gathered at the State Capitol demanding justice for students killed in Ethiopia.
Mukhtar Ibrahim | MPR News

Hashim Adam, a pharmacy student from North Dakota State University, drove from Fargo to show support and solidarity with students protesting in Oromia.

"I was one of the victims of the Ethiopian government," he said. "That's why I left the country about 12 years ago, when I was a high school student." Some of his fellow students were killed and arrested during a demonstration over freedom of speech, he said.

Protesters have urged the U.S. government to stop providing assistance to the Ethiopian government, which largely relies on development aid from foreign donors.

"USAID's portfolio in Ethiopia is one of the largest and most complex in Africa," says the website of USAID, a U.S. government agency that provides aid to foreign countries.

Hashim Adam said the aid is not a good investment. "The money that the U.S. government gives to this Ethiopian government is actually making them stronger, more controlling, and it isn't going to the development that they are talking about," Adam said. "There's no democracy in Ethiopia at all."

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, three members of Minnesota's delegation to the U.S. House — Democrats Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, and Republican Tom Emmer — condemned the attacks against the students. They also called on the State Department to leverage its financial and diplomatic influence to pressure the Ethiopian government.

"The continued mistreatment and displacement of the Oromo ethnic group in the Oromia region is especially troubling," the representatives said in the letter. "We respectfully ask you to conduct a full, thorough review of this ongoing situation. We cannot look the other way when our allies are violating the human rights of their citizens."