The Powers and Limits of New Media Appropriation in Authoritarian Contexts: A Comparative Case Study of Oromo Protests in Ethiopia.

Author:Dugo, Habtamu


Using a comparative case study approach, this paper aims to analyze and synthesize social media appropriation by pro-democracy social movements in multiple countries. While the study primarily focuses on new media appropriation in Oromia and Ethiopia during Oromo Protests from 2014-2017, it also critically examines multiple comparative cases where new media and social media technologies have had significant impact and where they did not have significant impact as desired. The study finds that in authoritarian contexts where traditional mass media are controlled by the state/ruling elites, new media unequivocally serve as strong alternative platforms for the expression of grievances of of protesters seeking regime changes. Thus, the paper argues that despite the challenges of restrictions imposed on new media usage, spreading information and coordinating protests across the country's largest state using these tools for the very first time by itself is a significant development in a country nobody predicted new/social media would be used to the extent it had been to rattle the regime to its core. And second, it suggests that protesters put the limited new media resources available to them to a phenomenal use even compared to countries where resources exist in abundance.

Key Words: new media technologies, social media, Internet freedom, political protests, Oromo Protests, social movements, Ethiopia, Oromia, Africa, Oromo, Horn of Africa


This paper analyzes and synthesizes new media and social media appropriation by Oromo protest movements in Oromia and Ethiopia from 2014-2017. It then compares the impact of widespread practices of the use of new media technologies in Oromia to other globally successful and unsuccessful cases in order to explain the reasons for success and failure. The paper attempted to answer these two inter-related research questions: 1) Where did new media technologies work effectively to bring about regime changes and why? 2) Where did new media technologies fail to have a larger impact to unseat incumbent regimes and why? The paper presents some of the key restrictions implemented by the Ethiopian government in order to counter the use of new media tools. For the purpose of clarity, a highlight of the issues raised by protesters will be briefly mentioned. Although multiple political organizations have directly or indirectly claimed responsibility for organizing one of most sustainable and longest-running rallies in the empire's history, this paper posits that political organizations failed to consolidate horizontal mass uprisings into a force that would achieve the desired goals of the protests. Protesters used new media technologies and tools such as ZTE smartphones, Facebook, Viber, WhatsApp, websites, blogs and Twitter to share files, photos, audios, videos and texts about crackdown on civilians by police and the military. The trend went on until the regime switched off the internet and banned or restricted the use of social media tools and mobile data.

Contextual Background

Who were the protesters, and what were they protesting about?

Before it culminated into Oromia-wide mass protests, and promoted on social media as "Oromo Protests," university and school students started small-scale protests following the announcement of the Addis Ababa Master Pan, which sought to annex large territories from surrounding Oromia cities and rural areas into Finfinne/Addis in order to expand the size of the capital city to double its current size. The plan is explicit about the regime's intentions to incorporate over 6 Oromia's cities and 8 rural Aanaalee (Counties) in the vicinity of Finfinnee into Fininne against the will of the Oromo people. Sululta, Bishoftu, Sabata Dukem, Holeta and Ambo are among Oromia state's cities planned to be gobbled up by Addis Ababa. Regime authorities estimated that Finfinne, which currently sits on 54,000 hectares of Oromo land obtained through 19 (th) and 20 (th) century crimes of genocide, now wants to gain 1.1 million (1) hectares of land from Oromia by the same criminal method--genocide. The plan began being implemented before its official announcement and it did already displace at least 150,000 Oromo farmers in Oromia's counties and districts adjacent to the nation's capital. (2) At the end of its implementation, the plan was projected to displace 8-10 million residents of Oromia's counties and cities. (3)

The most salient issue raised by protesters from April 2014 to November 2015 was opposition to the master pan and demands for it withdrawal or cancelation. Other less salient issues the protesters raised included demanding self-determination or autonomy for Oromia state. Also, language rights, cultural rights and issues of ethnic-based discrimination against the Oromo people were among the early demands of the protesters.

Beginning in late April 2014 with the Ambo Massacre, (4) protesters reported the crackdown by security forces using cell phones, leaking disturbing audio-visual information to diaspora-based activists and media organizations. In the absence of international media from the scenes of state-led mass killing, at times, protesters were also citizen reporters of events unfolding against them. Holding up a cell phone in the sight of heavily armed military shooting at civilians posed greater risks to those who did it, but they did put the cause above themselves and continued to spread information on social media.

As the protests reached a critical mass and engulfed the whole Oromo nation and its neighbors from November 2015 to October 2016, the images shared on social media/new media attested to the widespread atrocities that were being committed against civilians across Oromia. Human Rights Watch led the way with early reports on the widespread crackdown. (5) Then based on human rights reports, very few Western print/online-based media organizations ran the initial stories. The version of the story told by the Western press was highly sanitized compared to the degree of the violence against civilians, but yet that was very welcome by Oromo people at home and diaspora who have been very desperate to get the messages out to the world. The sanitization involved stripping the ethnic identity of the persecuted to make the disturbing events palatable to the perpetrator regime as well as its international backers.

Hashtags, such as #OromoProtests, named by BBC one of 'Africa's top hashtags of 2016' (6), were used to spread the news of the protests and the concurrent massive atrocities in the hands of the regime. As the continuation of decades of Oromo resistance against Abyssinian tyranny and abuse, the protests reached a critical mass in late 2015 to mid-2016, but the mainstream international media reporting of the protests reached a global critical mass when Rio2016 Olympic men's marathon silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa displayed the protest gesture of Oromo protests by crossing his wrists above his head making the famous X-sign in order to protest and highlight the killings and other forms of rights abuses perpetrated against his relatives and the Oromo people at large in the homeland. (7) Feyisa Lilesa's Rio de Jenerio live gesture at the finish line of the international marathon was a premediated heroic act meant to attract the attention of the world toward the massive atrocity crimes the Oromo have been facing in Ethiopia. Judging by standards of hundreds of international media coverage, one determined athlete, Feyisa Lilesa, succeeded in being the first Oromo athlete to bring global publicity of unprecedented magnitude to atrocities as well as to some of the issues raised by the protesters. The global Oromo community widely celebrated this singular act of courage. (8)

Of course, Feyisa was not the only one who sought an end to the killings of the Oromo people. Millions who protested across Oromia also had similar messages. He was different because he amplified the voices of the people by displaying the ultimate symbol of the movement on the global stage by leaps and bounds.

Ethiopian government propagandists and backers often try to minimize the reasons the Oromo people have been protesting to minor, but important rights such as cultural rights, the right to making Afaan Oromoo an official language of Ethiopia, and employment opportunities. One who scoured the Internet, Facebook, Youtube at the time of the protests and listened to the slogans chanted by the protesters, would immediately realize that the Oromo people were making the following major demands: right to self-rule for Oromia, rights over Fifinne, democracy, justice, freedom, land rights, end of Tigrean military occupation, freedom of speech and assembly.

At the onset of the first phase of the protests against the master plan in mid-2014, Addis Ababa University students raised the following issues and uploaded them to YouTube (9):

Where is democracy? Where is federalism, Finfinne is the heart of Oromia, Sabata is ours, Waliso is ours, Burayu is ours, Holeta is ours, Oromia belongs to Oromos, where can we go? We were born on Oromia, we learned about ourselves on Oromia, we reproduced on it--where can we go? Where can we go? Where can we go? ...We need respect, we need our land, we need protection. Stop killing students, our right should be respected, our freedom should be restored, stop killing students, we need justice, we need true democracy, justice for Oromo students, justice for Oromo farmers, Oromo is not inferior, stop murdering, stop killing, land to our fathers, land for our farmers, the master plan is not for Oromo society. Early on as well as much later after the demonstrations expanded in scope, the issues raised by Oromo students and Oromo people were similar from one locality of Oromia to another. They demanded the restoration of "Abbaa-biyyummaa," the ownership of Oromia to Oromia stressing that Oromia belonged to Oromos. These messages were...

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