April 10, 2007

Oromo: Event Addresses Democratic Growth

Prominent policymakers, academics and human rights activists gathered last week for an event focused on topics of African democracy and progress, including the current situation in Oromo.

Below is an article written by Kathryn Nelson published by The Minnesota Daily:

During the past two decades, rebel leaders and regimes have taken control of several African countries promising positive change but have instead executed attacks on civilians.

Last Friday [06 April 2007], the University Law School, along with the Human Rights Center and several other supporting organizations, coordinated the daylong event "The 'New Breed' of African Leaders and the Future of Human Rights and Democracy in Africa."

Bringing together prominent policymakers, academics and leaders, the event focused on broad topics of African democracy and progress and drew about 150 attendees.

President of the Oromia Student Union Gada Beshir cosponsored the event. Beshir, who was born in an Oromia region of Ethiopia, said this "new breed" of African leaders have suppressed the will of the Oromo people and have participated in mass human rights abuses such as arbitrary detainment and torture.

The global studies junior also said the Ethiopian government is carrying out these actions with financial and military aid from the U.S. government.

Panelist Michael Clough, a former senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations and director of African advocacy at Human Rights Watch, spoke about the 2005 elections in Ethiopia in which government voting fraud was alleged.

Clough said the Oromo people have a distinct disadvantage in participating in government politics, as the minority population rules over the majority.

"It's similar to the rulers of apartheid, maybe even less democratic," he said.

Clough said the Oromo people make up about 40 to 50 percent of people living in Ethiopia.

The fragility of the area, in terms of political tension, is also a cause for concern, he said.

"If there was ever a full outbreak (of violence), the death toll would dwarf other situations," Clough said.

Bringing Ethiopian and Oromo issues to the top of the U.S. agenda is of utmost importance before violence arises, he said.

"Or I guarantee people will say 'How could we not have done anything?' "

Professor at California State University Alemayehu Mariam said the University of Minnesota has a strong reputation of human rights advocacy, including divesting its funds in South Africa during apartheid.

Mariam, who received his doctorate here, said Friday's event was meant to send a message to the victimizers of the African people: that someone is watching them.

These new leaders are "pitiful emperors with no clothes," he said.

The interactive event also allowed participants to voice their opinions on the current state of Africa as well as brainstorm solutions for the future.

"We have to bring the women up," one participant said, "and start to talk about the future of female African leaders."

Others looked for help from Africans living outside the continent, as well as African-American citizens in the United States.

"Never, in the history of Africa, have there been more members of the African diaspora," said Christopher Fomunyoh from the National Democratic Institute.

Some said there's a disconnect between hypothesizing about solutions for Africa and actually acting upon them.

Still, the auditorium buzzed with questions, solutions and concerns for the continent that many living in Minnesota call home.

As one participant said, the most important goal of the event is "bringing the scrambled Africa together as one."