As protests in Ethiopia over the rights of the country’s Oromo people continue, Addis Ababa-based journalist James Jeffrey considers if they are threatening the country’s unity.

The latest round of bloody protests over Oromo rights had a tragically surreal beginning.

A bus filled with a wedding party taking the bride to the groom’s home was stopped at a routine checkpoint on 12 February near the southern Ethiopian town of Shashamane.

Local police told revelers to turn off the nationalistic Oromo music playing. They refused and the bus drove off.

The situation then rapidly escalated and reports indicate at least one person died and three others were injured after police fired shots.

The exact details of the incident are hard to verify, but what is clear is that days of protest followed, including armed local militia clashing with federal police, leaving seven policemen dead, the government says.

Since last November, Ethiopia has seen a third phase of the recent unrest in the Oromia region which has been unprecedented in its longevity and geographical spread.

The region is the largest in Ethiopia and the Oromos, who make up a third of the population, are the biggest of the country’s more than 80 ethnic groups.

Initially the protests were in reaction to a plan to expand the administrative border of the capital, Addis Ababa, which is encircled by Oromia.

But even after the region’s governing party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, which is part of Ethiopia’s governing coalition, shelved the plan in January, protests have continued.

Historical scars

“There is a strong sense of victimhood, extending back 150 years,” says Daniel Berhane, a prominent Addis Ababa-based political blogger, covering Ethiopia for the website Horn Affairs.

“People remember the history. The scars are still alive, such as how the Oromo language was suppressed until 20 years ago.”

Despite there being an ethnic basis to these protests, observers say that the deeper issues behind them, frustrations over land ownership, corruption, political and economic marginalization, are familiar to many disenchanted Ethiopians.

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