Protesters from the Oromo ethnic group say the government is trying to take away their lands and use them for everything

By Paul Schemm |

Wenchi, The cows are back in the valley near the village of Wenchi in Ethiopia’s highlands, after being driven out five years ago by the arrival of a Dutch agricultural company.

They returned in the past few weeks, after villagers burned the warehouses filled with seed potatoes that were to be planted on communal grazing lands that authorities had turned over to the Solagrow PLC company.

This attack is among dozens of demonstrations taking place for the past two months across Ethiopia’s Oromo state, which comprises a third of the country.

Protesters from the Oromo ethnic group say the government is trying to take away their lands and use them for everything from industrial development to luxury housing projects.

The response has been harsh, with Human Rights Watch estimating that 140 people have been killed by security forces using live rounds to quell the protests. The demonstrations are threatening Ethiopia’s goal of transforming itself into a new industrial and agribusiness powerhouse for the continent and harming its reputation for stability.

The violence has also earned Ethiopia a rare rebuke from the U.S. government, which considers it a key ally in the fight against terrorism.

“We were protesting peacefully and marching around the town when we heard about the deaths in the other villages, and so we became angry and attacked the farm,” said 27-year-old Drabuma Terrafa, standing near the charred remnants of a Solagrow potato warehouse.

Ethiopia’s federal police and army counterterrorism units have poured into the state. In more than a dozen interviews, people described arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings by security forces.

“I think the strategy is to terrorize people by shooting them point blank,” said Merera Gudina, the chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress party.

The government says only that “significant” numbers of civilians have been killed and justifies the violence by saying that armed elements and extremists in the protests at times have nearly overwhelmed security forces. Government spokesman Getachew Reda noted that at least a dozen members of the security forces have been killed.

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